Fort Collins’ urban camping ban discriminates against the homeless

Laurel Thompson

Laurel Thompson
Laurel Thompson

In late August, the city government enforced an ordinance to ban urban camping within the limits of Fort Collins. The restrictions are explained in Article IX, Section 23 of the Fort Collins Municipal Code, which states that, “Camping shall mean to sleep or spend the night or reside or dwell temporarily in a natural area, with or without shelter, or to conduct activities of daily living, such as eating or sleeping, in such place.” To this, camping in designated campgrounds and incidental napping or picnicking are the legal exceptions.

Naturally, the ordinance caused immediate protest among the homeless community, a movement they call “Occupy Jefferson Park,” as the camping ban seems to be an attack on those who most often do not have an alternative to living and sleeping outside. Jefferson Park, located at the corner of Linden and Jefferson streets, is particularly important to a number of veterans and others who are in transient stages of life.

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Jefferson
“Occupy Jefferson Street” protestors Shane Williamson, Kendra Humbert and Zechariah Humbert take a Labor Day lunch break and smile for their cause. (Photo Credit: Laurel Thompson)

“All we’re asking for is equal treatment,” said Zechariah Humbert, spokesperson for the movement. “Homelessness is not a crime and, most often, it is not a choice.”

Although the churches and other nonprofits in Fort Collins practice much community involvement for aiding the homeless, facilities fill up surprisingly quick and most operate on a first-come, first-serve basis — particularly in the winter months. So, what are the hundreds of Fort Collins’ homeless to do when the first snow storm hits and neither the shelters nor the outdoors are available for refuge? That seems like quite an unfair and inhumane predicament, given that sleeping outside during a blizzard, even if allowed, would be awfully uncomfortable and potentially life-threatening.

First and foremost, urban camping is not banned at the state or federal levels, which puts the city government up to blame for violating the homeless community’s constitutional and human rights. To name a few, “activities of daily living” cannot realistically be banned without interfering with citizens’ right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, their right to public space — which they pay for through taxes just like everyone else — and, although more technical and case-specific, their right to travel. For these reasons, city councilman Ray Martinez said the city attorney’s office is working to revise the previous ordinance so it will be more constitutional and purposeful for law enforcement and homeless people in the community.

Furthermore, criminalizing the act of sleeping outdoors seems to be discriminating against the homeless community in a way that keeps them from getting back on their feet.

Violators of the ordinance are ticketed and fined $100 per instance. Failure to appear in court for a camping ticket results in an automatic misdemeanor, a criminal charge that makes it harder to find work and housing due to background checks. Humbert alone has received roughly 30 tickets for camping in various public places within the last three years, and has faced 2.5 months in prison for failure to appear on the tickets.

“You’re automatically a criminal if you don’t pay them, and now they’re handing out even more tickets,” Humbert said. “It’s just a cycle to keep us at the bottom.”

According to Martinez, one of the government’s main concerns that led to the camping ban is the negative impact urban camping has on local businesses and city tax revenue. Apparently, not only does camping on the sidewalks and loitering near businesses hurt the downtown economy, but banning camping in nearby natural areas will keep the homeless from seeking refuge in heated local businesses more so than they already do. Regardless of the city government’s involvement with nonprofits to provide food and shelter for the homeless, it seems as though the ordinance aims to remove any stragglers once the shelters are full. To put it any other way would simply not make sense.

Martinez said another function of the ordinance is to help preserve health and safety within the city’s natural areas, as abandoned property can contaminate or hurt unsuspecting children and wildlife in the area. He said the city is working to create a task force that will determine whether abandoned property is truly abandoned and dispose of it properly, and provide additional resources for the homeless. While I agree that litter and contaminated property in natural areas is an ecological problem, I think the task force would be an appropriate solution in itself, without need for a camping ban.

Fort Collins has much more interconnectivity and community involvement than a lot of other cities, so I think it is essential that we come together and defend the homeless population now, more so than we previously have. Whether it is through the construction of additional facilities, donation boxes, food drives, volunteer work or kind words, people are people and deserve to be aided in times of need, not turned away.

Collegian Columnist Laurel Thompson can be reached at hmcgill@collegian.com or on Twitter @laurelanne1996.

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