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Homeless still must move along after Colorado ‘Right to Rest’ bill is killed again

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A Democratic-led House committee killed the latest version of Colorado’s “Right to Rest” bill to outlaw urban camping bans that keep homeless people from sleeping in parks and other public spaces.

House Bill 1314 died on a 8-5 vote in the House Local Government Committee, marking the third year in a row the effort by Democratic Reps. Joe Salazar and Jovan Melton has died in its first committee.

After the vote at 11:40 p.m., people shouted obscenities at the committee, including one woman who yelled repeatedly, “Blood is on your hands!”

Rep. Paul Rosenthal, who joined Rep Matt Gray  as the Democrats who voted with Republicans against the bill, said he, too, is gravely concerned about homelessness, but “there are multiple ways to get to a common goal.”

He said the bill would open cities up to mass litigation, draining money that could be used for parks, schools and other public needs. Cities’ efforts to help homeless people would be hamstrung, Rosenthal said.

“It’d be hands off,” he said.

But the bill never really had a chance, regardless of the more than 10 hours of deliberations Wednesday. If it had survived the committee and the House floor, it would have been dead on arrival in the Republican-led Senate. Such “message” bills are about making a point, not making law against all odds.

Denver, Colorado Springs, Boulder, Fort Collins and other larger cities have restricted homeless people with urban camping bans,  panhandling and various degrees of vagrancy.

Homeless camps, they say, deprive the rest of the public of the use of parks and sidewalks while leaving a mess and frightening away customers from nearby businesses because of aggressive panhandling.

People living on the street are better served by going to shelters and other programs that could help them, they contend.

Bret Waters, the deputy chief of staff for the city of Colorado Springs, said the city isn’t “criminalizing” homeless people but instead has made major investments in ending the cycle of homelessness.

“House Bill 1314 does not help provide resources for local governments to continue our work,” he said. “Frankly, we see it as a way of taking away opportunities for us to get individuals care.”

He added, “Decisions regarding our citizens should remain local,”

Salazar said the bill wasn’t that broad.

“The issue of homelessness is so much bigger than this bill — it’s huge,” he said. “But one of the biggest barriers to getting a job is having a criminal record, and it’s one of the biggest barriers to getting employment.”

Rep. Larry Liston, R-Colorado Springs, tried to amend the bill to allow homeless people to camp in legislators’ offices. “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander,” he said.

Committee chairman Steve Lebsock, D-Thornton, ruled the amendment out of order,

Most of the testimony focused on the broader issue of homelessness rather than whether the common good is served by restricting where the homeless sleep or camp.

Colorado’s affordable housing crisis is a big contributor to the issue. The Colorado Coalition for the Homeless said that for every 100 families living deep below the poverty line, there are only 25 homes.

Erin Conner, who is homeless, told the committee she can’t find anywhere to live on the $757 a month she receives from a disability check.

Shelter space for a mother and child are a nightly lottery. She couldn’t buy her son anything for Easter, because all their money goes to hotel rooms.

“I just really hope y’all say yes to this bill, because I feel like my son shouldn’t have to sleep in a stroller,” she said. “I feel like I shouldn’t worry that I can’t change my son on a park bench because I’m interfering with the public. Where am I supposed to change him when these businesses won’t let you use their bathrooms?”

Ray Lyle, who is homeless, told the House Local Government Committee he represented people “living in the dirt.”

He said homeless people are being driven farther into the recesses of society, with increased dangers and the health threats of sleep deprivation.

“For many of us, this is a fight for our life,” Lyle said.

Denver passed its urban camping ban in 2012, citing crime, human waste and other problems caused by homeless camps setting up in city parks and outside businesses.

Last December, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock ordered police to stop seizing homeless people’s blankets to coerce them to move along, after a public outcry.

Sophia Lawson, a street outreach worker for the homeless, said that because of Denver’s urban camping ban she knows of five rapes that were a result. She cited a homeless man run over and killed sleeping in a dark alley to hide from police, and explained the problems finding people whose usual camps have been flushed out by police.

“Flat out, I’d say criminalization doesn’t help connect people to services,” Lawson said, explaining Denver’s services for the homeless are inadequate.

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