DENVER -- Opponents of a proposed ban on urban camping, an effort to finally clear out the Occupy Denver encampment in Civic Center Park, packed a Denver City Council hearing on the ordinance Tuesday morning.
Many of them wore orange buttons that read "Homes Not Handcuffs,” although supporters of the ordinance, including Mayor Michael Hancock, pushed back on the notion that the goal is to get homeless people off the streets by putting them in jail.
"The fact is that there is already a high percentage of homeless people filling our jails," Hancock said at the weekly meeting. "So this idea that it's this proposal that's going to put them in jail is not true. We're trying to make sure they get the services and shelter they need while protecting our public spaces and maintaining public safety."
District 8 Councilman Albus Brooks, who is sponsoring the ordinance, made the same point an hour later inside the crowded hearing room.
"This city will always be about housing," Brooks said. "We've invested $54 million in Denver's Road Home. But we've also invested millions in public spaces like Civic Center Park, and that's also important for us to protect."
Assistant City Attorney David Broadwell explained the ordinance, which would prohibit any and all camping in public places, including sidewalks, is an effort to remove what's become a permanent encampment in and around Civic Center Park, where Occupy Denver first set up camp in late August of last year.
"It's when these encampments become permanent that the problems start to become more acute," Broadwell said, referring to issues of sanitation, public safety and a drop on tourism and economic activity.
Tami Door, executive director of the Downtown Denver Partnership, spoke briefly about how the ongoing presence of campers and homeless in and around downtown is affecting businesses and the way tourists view the city.
And Lindy Eichenbaum Lent, executive director of the Civic Center Conservancy, didn't hold back when voicing her frustrations over Occupy Denver's impact on Civic Center Park, which had just undergone a $10 million renovation when the protesters set up camp there last August.
"Urban parks, sidewalks and plazas are not built for habitation," said Eichenbaum Lent.
"What headlines have we seen recently about the Civic Center encampment? A scabies outbreak that required a haz-mat response. Assaults, drug distribution.
"We as a community cannot tolerate property damage, sanitation crises, loss of public assets, or accepting parks and public sidewalks as overflow shelters."
John Parvensky, the executive director of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, agreed that hundreds of people sleeping along the park and the 16th Street mall is a problem that needs to be addressed; but he maintained that the ordinance does criminalize homelessness and should be amended so that police officers can't arrest campers when there's no space at homeless shelters.
"If you want to solve the problem, you have to invest in more shelter, better health and mental health services and in long-term housing," said Parvensky, who acknowledged that the proposal that may hurt the homeless is largely a result of the Occupy Denver encampment.
"Unfortunately, the Occupy movement has made this a much more difficult issue, because people who do have choices are choosing to sleep outdoors, to camp as a protest statement, as part of their First Amendment right," said Parvensky. "The people that we deal with have no other choice."
The city council's hearing Tuesday is an information session. Public testimony will be heard, but no vote is scheduled.