A a massive homeless encampment along the South Platte River trail near Columbine Street. May 11, 2018 in Denver.
It didn’t take much to inspire the metro area’s first urban camping ban outside Denver and Boulder. Just an assortment of abandoned items — tents, sleeping bags, drug paraphernalia, clothes and DVDs among them — collected by police during the past year in parks, under bridges and along trails.
What the new law in Parker says about how the largely upper-middle-class city and other nearby communities are addressing homelessness is more complicated.
Leaders in fast-growing Parker, 23 miles southeast of Denver, passed a measure last week banning camping on public property, while also making it illegal for anyone to “sit, kneel, recline or lie upon the public right of way.”
The new measure bears similarities to urban camping laws enacted in Denver and Boulder over the past decade — laws that some people have likened to criminalizing homelessness — and serves as a fresh reminder of the pressures communities in the metro area are under as escalating home prices continue to push people to the margins.
“There is a public perception that Parker is only an affluent community,” said Diane Roth, a volunteer with the Parker Task Force, a food bank and social service agency serving nearly 300 families a month from Elizabeth, Franktown and Parker. “And that is not the truth.”
The irony is that while population and home prices across the Denver area continue rising, the data doesn’t show homelessness doing likewise. The 2017 Point In Time survey, a seven-county effort conducted by the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative, showed a decline in the number of people without a home, from 5,467 people in 2016 to 5,116 last year. The 2018 numbers, which were collected at the start of the year, are expected to be released this week.
In Douglas County, home to Parker, the survey showed a sharp decrease in homelessness, from 65 people in 2016 to 45 people in 2017. But Roth said those numbers don’t necessarily capture the true nature of the problem in a town like Parker, where large numbers of people sleeping on sidewalks or along bike paths is not typical.
“Homelessness looks different in Douglas County than it does in Denver,” Roth said. “I would say the majority are living in their cars while others are couch surfing. They are the working poor — they’re underemployed and they are paying a very high rent.”
Dennis Gorton, executive director of Southeast Community Outreach, a Parker human service organization that help people in poverty, pointed to a problem that lies just beyond homelessness. One in nine households in Douglas County, he said, are living “on the edge” of the poverty level. It takes a wage of $28 to $30 an hour for a single parent with a child to afford the average rent in Parker, he said.
“There is no doubt that suburban poverty is growing significantly in Douglas County,” Gorton said.
An Apartment List report released last year, based on data from Harvard University’s Joint Center on Housing Studies, concluded that the number of people living in high-poverty census tracts in metro Denver suburban areas went up 3 percent from 2000 to 2015. SECOR has seen a 15 to 20 percent increase in families coming in for help since the beginning of the year.
Which is why Gorton is “flabbergasted” that Parker never contacted SECOR to get the agency’s input before crafting its camping ordinance. Approaches that are less punitive and more comprehensive might have been explored, he said.
“A solution to symptoms”
Douglas County, home to Parker, may regularly make the list of the nation’s richest counties, ranked by household income, but that doesn’t mean it exists in a bubble. Roth said while homelessness may not be as prevalent or obvious in Parker (population 50,000) as it is in Denver (population 700,000), it is nonetheless real.
Exacerbating the situation is the singularly high cost to rent an apartment in Parker. According to Apartment List’s June 2018 Denver Rent Report, released June 1, Parker has the most expensive rents in the metro area — with a two-bedroom median rate of $1,860 monthly.
“People at the margins are getting squeezed out,” said John Parvensky, executive director of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless.
Parvensky and other advocates for the homeless are dubious about the approach Parker is taking with its anti-camping ordinance. Laws of this type — sometimes referred to as “move-along” measures — help push poverty out of sight and out of mind, he said, but do nothing to tackle the root causes of why so many people are struggling to afford a home.
“A ban is a solution to the symptoms but not to the underlying problem because it just moves the problem to another location,” he said. “We know that a lot of the time, it’s frustration that takes root and cities pass these kinds of measures to deal with the visibility of the issue.”
Ban seeks balance
Parker Mayor Mike Waid said the new law is merely an expansion of a ban the town has had for nearly 30 years on camping in parks to all public areas in Parker.
“The goal of this ordinance is to protect the public health, safety and welfare of the town of Parker and its residents by prohibiting unsafe or unsanitary activities or conduct on public property, which substantially interferes with the public’s use and enjoyment of such public places,” he wrote in an email.
The mayor said the measure has a built-in stipulation that first-time violators be served a warning before a summons is issued. He said the ordinance “actually provides urban campers with easier access to additional resources, such as human services assistance, medical assistance, mental health assistance, etc.”
The law also will give the owners of abandoned property a grace period in which to reclaim their belongings before they are tossed, Waid said.
Parker police Cmdr. Chris Peters said the town is trying to take a “balanced approach” to the issue, with an eye toward ensuring the safety of residents who use the town’s trails and parks while being sensitive to those struggling with basic needs.
“It may start with someone sleeping on the bike path — maybe we can get them where they need to be,” he said. “The ordinance is intentionally written to direct services to people without putting them into the criminal justice system.”
But Parvensky said simply giving a warning for a first-time violation “does not prevent criminalizing homelessness, because once warned, the person or family cannot comply due to their homelessness — they can only move, and when they stop, they will be violating the ordinance.”
Parker has human service organizations — including SECOR and the Parker Task Force — that help people in poverty. But emergency shelter in Douglas County is harder to come by. There’s the Winter Shelter Network — but the eight-church cooperative only provides beds during the cold months of the year.
Tim Crowley was a cement tester who ran out of work — and money — last winter when his hours were severely cut. He tried to borrow money from his boss but eventually was kicked out of his Centennial apartment by his roommate. He has been homeless in Parker for just over a month.
Crowley, 50, found a relatively secluded area along Sulphur Gulch Trail in Parker to make camp last week. While the Parker Task Force gave him $80 to buy a tent, Crowley said he wishes an affluent community such as Parker could do more to help people in his situation.
“I can’t get a shower,” he said. “They’ve completely shut the door on the homeless, man. They’ve done it because it’s an eyesore.”
“Reaction to the symptoms”
Will Connelly, executive director of the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative, said the only effective way to curtail homelessness is to take a regional approach to the problem, with collective efforts to provide housing, mental health service and help for those dealing with addictions. Measures such as the one Parker passed Monday, he said, are simply a “reaction to the symptoms of homelessness.”
Anti-camping laws can also push the problem to neighboring communities. Drew O’Connor, deputy director of Unison Housing Partners in Adams County, said Denver’s 2012 urban camping ban has had the effect of sending homeless people down trails along the South Platte River to find a place to sleep.
Last month, Adams County authorities cleared out a large encampment along the river near interstates 270 and 76. Similarly, in April, a homeless encampment upriver on the South Platte in Englewood, where 30 people lived, was disassembled with 25 truckloads of garbage taken to the dump.
“Homelessness is not a problem that stops at the border of a jurisdiction,” O’Connor said.
Peters, the police commander from Parker, admits that the town’s new law isn’t a solution for a problem that goes far beyond Parker’s borders, but it’s an answer to the challenges the town is facing now.
“There’s an expectation that the town provide safe and clean facilities for the public to use,” he said. “We have to keep the trails safe, we have to keep the users safe.”