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Homeless advocates: Enforcing camping ban means taking sleeping bags, blankets

DENVER -- As the bitter cold sets in, Denver’s homeless population is pleading with city leaders to change course on its urban camping ban.

Current policy is putting lives in danger, according to homeless advocates.

To enforce the ban, police officers make routine sweeps and occasionally clear out homeless people’s belongings when violations occur that result in citations being issued.

Seizing those belongings includes taking blankets and sleeping bags needed to stay warm, according to some who attended Monday night’s city council meeting.

“You’re not helping the situation for us,” one homeless person said while addressing council members.

More than a dozen stepped up to have their voices heard. They all had one message: Do away with Denver’s ban on urban camping.

“A week ago, it was 20 degrees out when your police officers were taking blankets from women in wheelchairs,” claimed one person who spoke to the council.

With temperatures falling to dangerously cold levels this week and shelters close to capacity, advocates said Denver’s homeless need more options.

The Denver Rescue Mission and The Salvation Army have been busy preparing more space to house additional people this week.

Police said enforcing the camping ban by removing homeless people’s belongings is a last resort.

Belongings that impede the public right of way are held for evidence after citations are issued. The occurrence of removing belongings is extremely minimal, according to police.

Police said Monday their goal is to find help for those on the streets, but not everyone wants the help or views officers as being helpful.

“We think it’s high time that we actually work on solutions instead of punishing poor folks for being poor,” homeless advocate Marcus Hyde said.

Those on the front lines of the crisis, like St. Francis Center outreach worker Sophia Lawson, said the recent police sweeps are having unintended consequences by shuffling the homeless problem from one part of the city to the next.

“It actually dislocates our community members that I already have relationships with and makes it such that I cannot locate them in order to provide the real services,” Lawson said.

Police said their focus will continue to be getting people off the streets and into shelters during the next few frigid nights.

The city has been challenged on its camping ban with a case in federal court, making the future of enforcement uncertain.