The Centennial City Council on Monday night unanimously adopted on final reading a controversial urban camping ban, prohibiting camping on city-owned property such as parks and other open space, trails, rights-of-way and drainageways. The council chambers were packed with proponents and opponents of the measure.
The council heard from about 15 residents, many favoring the ban, but several in vehement opposition to the proposal, which was heard on first reading at the council meeting on Monday, July 1. It appeared likely that at least one of the anti-camping ban proponents was threatening the city with litigation if the proposal passed.
A staff report from Jill Hassman, assistant city attorney, said that the city staff recommended that the proposal be passed, and that the city has “the clear authority” to pass the ban. Recent urban camping bans were passed by both the Denver City Council and the Parker City Council.
“Individuals have no legal right to use public space for activities such as camping or overnight stay, Hassman stated in a written memo to the council. “Absent a local law,” the city has to rely on “the general law of trespass . . . and [it] is more difficult to impose when unwanted camping is discovered on public property.”
City Attorney Robert Widner, who was present at the meeting, in response to questions from The Villager, said that the city has received some complaints about urban camping.
Denver and Parker both have recently adopted such bans.
Several residents described discovering encampments near their homes and described them as extremely dirty and concerning. Hassman’s report stated that camping “is inconsistent with the intended use of the city’s property.” She labeled the issue one of “significant impacts” to Centennial residents. The ordinance states that the law is necessary “to promote public health and safety.”
Definitions of “camping” in the law include sleeping “or making preparations to sleep, including the lying down of bedding for the purpose of sleeping as well as the presence or use of a “campfire, camp stove or other heating source.”
A man identifying himself as “Pastor John McLain from Tucson, Arizona,” said he is a minister to veterans and a social worker. He said that he was involved in obtaining a “preliminary injunction” in one city where a camping ban was enacted.
Another city had “punitive damages” imposed for banning urban camping, McLain said. Additionally, he stated that he takes the calling of Jesus “very seriously” and that Jesus has guided him to “help the poor. Jesus said to take care of the poor.” Christians must consider whether Jesus “would impose a camping ban,” he stated.
Someone who was sitting with McLain, who identified herself as Katie Etcheverry, of Highlands Ranch, said she was also opposed to the camping ban, which she said would be “criminalizing” sleeping. She said she works at the Centennial Airport.
A resident of Centennial, Chris Davis, of 7603 S. Gilpin Court, said he makes $17.25 hourly and cannot afford an apartment. He, too, was opposed to the ban, and predicted it would be found unconstitutional.
Several in the large audience spoke vehemently in favor of the proposal. One woman said she discovered a camp behind her home and has repeatedly been awakened in the middle of the night by various loud, scary noises coming from the camp.
Some members of the audience urged the council to pass the ordinance out of concern for the safety of children in residential neighborhoods and because the camps are very dirty. One said she asked the police for assistance, and they told her there was no law prohibiting such camping. She said there was one camp immediately behind her home, and a second camp a little farther away from her home.
Some residents said they have helped the homeless. Others said the “tents and mess” of the encampments makes them unwanted. A University of Denver College of Law student, Kristein Mallory Westerberg, said there are 351 anti-homeless ordinances across Colorado and it is “not right.” There are five anti-homeless laws in Denver alone, she said. She urged the council not to “implement the failed policy” of other cities.
Another resident of Centennial, Lisa DiSabgiano, said the issue is “a completely new beast.” In some places in the United States, anti-drug medications are being passed out in homeless encampments, she said. This is “a horrible lifestyle.” One resident said he “feels sorry” for homeless residents, but added that the homeless should not be allowed to camp on public lands.
Some residents said the city should not impose large fines on the homeless. City Attorney Widner said that, while the city could impose large fines, he believes the typical fine levied would be about $80. Widner said there was no provision in the Centennial city code to incarcerate homeless individuals who violate the ban. There was very little discussion by the council prior to unanimously approving the ban.
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