While there’s much to criticize in city council’s recent decision to forbid camping on public land, thereby outlawing the homeless tent cities which have sprung up along Fountain Creek, we believe that council response to the tent cities was reasonable and appropriate.
Leaving aside the questions of litter, pollution, general unsightliness and the perceived danger to the public, it’s clear that the crippled national economy is the principal culprit in this sad spectacle.
Rosanne Barr, when she was creating her eponymous television show a couple of decades ago, famously remarked that TV execs “have absolutely no idea how poor people live.”
Barr knew the territory. As a struggling comic in Denver during the early 1980s she lived with her three children in a rented mobile home. During an appearance at a now-defunct Denver comedy club, she introduced herself, noted her living conditions, and said “I breed well in captivity!”
Other than Tom Gallagher, we question whether any member of Council has experienced real poverty. They may dimly remember “living on ramen and cable” from their college days, but the grueling, hopeless poverty experienced by the folks living on the banks of our muddy downtown streams is utterly foreign to them.
People who live on the margins of poverty rely upon others in similar situations to avoid the streets. They stay with friends, crowd into already-crowded apartments, or live with family members. But the dismal economy has removed many of those options, and the very people who once formed a de facto safety net are themselves close to homelessness.
And although there may be, as some claim, plenty of beds available in shelters, having your own space confers autonomy and dignity, however illusory. A shelter is just a dormitory filled with broken, beaten people, none of whom want to be there. It’s a temporary refuge, a way station on the way to a job, a roof over your head, and a new life. But what if the economy offers few options for those who seek to escape the creeks?
The sheer number of campers, variously estimated between 300 and 500 individuals, is astounding. A couple of years ago there were at most a few dozen hardy individuals inconspicuously braving the winter weather along the creeks. As downtown advocates and Westside merchants will tell you, some of them were (and are) aggressive panhandlers, feral men who are unwilling or unable to adjust to the demands of living in society.
Once the proposed ordinance is enacted at its second reading during Feb. 22, there may be legal challenges which will delay its enforcement. Whether or not that happens, the city should consider other, more proactive responses to the tent cities, including establishing an area where such long-term camping can be permitted.
But there’s a compelling reason to remove the campers from the creek banks before mid-May.
Twice in the last 75 years, during 1935 and 1965, catastrophic early-summer floods swept down Monument and Fountain Creeks. The Memorial Day flood of 1935 transformed the creek into a mile-wide river within a few hours, and many city residents perished in the flood. That event, if repeated, would end the lives of any campers who failed to move to higher ground — an avoidable tragedy that the city, in the interest of public safety, should act now to prevent.