After hours of pained testimony, homeless ‘right to rest’ bill fails on bipartisan vote

Author: John Tomasic - April 20, 2017 - Updated: April 20, 2017

(AP/David Kohl)
(AP/David Kohl)

State House Democrats joined Republicans late Wednesday night to vote down a bill that has made waves in various versions the last three years for championing the civil rights of the state’s homeless population.

After nearly six hours of emotional testimony, the “Right to Rest Act,” House Bill 1314, sponsored by state Democratic Reps. Joe Salazar from Thornton and Jovan Melton from Aurora, fell short in the House Local Government committee. The 8-5 vote came around midnight, Democrats Paul Rosenthal from Denver and Matt Gray from Broomfield joining Republicans in opposition.

The bill comes in response to the growing trend on the part of city leaders around the state to pass local laws — like Denver’s “camping ban” — that address homelessness primarily as a public safety issue. The rash of local laws are intended primarily to manage public space, mainly by moving homeless people along and allowing authorities to confiscate their belongings in an effort to prevent them from gathering and staying in public spaces — to move them out from underpasses and out of city parks and parked cars.

The sponsors argue that the local laws subject homeless people to unconstitutionally biased harassment and arrest.

Opponents feared the bill overstepped on local authority, substituting locally tailored approaches with a sweeping state provision. They also thought the bill would establish special rights for homeless people and so would become a magnet for lawsuits.

“We’ve all struggled with this bill,” said Rosenthal, a reliably liberal lawmaker who has been perhaps the most high-profile skeptic on the Salazar-Melton bill. Rosenthal treaded lightly.

“My concerns lead me to believe there are multiple ways to get at the common goal — to help the homeless to get a home… But we don’t have unlimited resources. If we vote no on this bill, it doesn’t mean we don’t care. Everyone in this room cares. We have different approaches to diminish and reduce and, god willing, some day eliminate homelessness in this country.

“Voting no doesn’t mean we’re any less Democrats or any less Republicans,” Rosenthal said. He argued the bill might tamp down local motivation and thinking on the problem.

His opposition to the bill was baffling to Salazar.

Salazar pointed out that city camping ban-style ordinances and arrests add criminal records to the challenges homeless people face. “That’s not helping,” Salazar said. “Let’s address the problem of homelessness. Criminalization isn’t helping.”

Melton said that cities were abusing their authority and so it was past time for state lawmakers to act.

“Cities have spent $5 million on these ordinances. That’s money badly spent,” he said. “We heard city representatives say, ‘Is the state going to manage city parks?’ Well, I’m sorry, but we heard those kinds of arguments during the Civil Rights era.

“Sometimes you need the bigger guy to step in when the little guy is getting beaten up — and the little guy is getting beaten up,” Melton said.

Salazar is a civil rights lawyer and he’s running for state attorney general motivated in part by what he sees as the threat of Trump-era infringements on the rights of Colorado residents, including the state’s undocumented immigrant population. He sees a grave problem in the legalized mistreatment of the vulnerable homeless population.

“I am utterly confused by some of my House democratic colleagues,” he wrote at his Facebook page before the hearing. “I am perplexed because the Colorado Democratic Party Platform asks us to address… human dignity, civil rights, economic justice.

“Despite our commitment as elected Democrats to the state party platform, there are some members who still believe that local governments have ‘rights’ and that those ‘rights’ trump a homeless person’s constitutional, human or civil rights.. We [must] place the rights of a human being above those of government.”

But opponents of the bill see another grave problem — a decades-old, deeply troubling, and seemingly intractable social problem and are loath to infringe on any efforts to address it.

“This takes more than one hearing,” Rep. Hugh McKean, a Republican from Loveland said. “I do not like creating law unless it does exactly what it’s supposed to do. In this case, I think the law doesn’t even do what it intends to do… What are the unintended consequences here?”

He said he thought local authorities could be better trained and that that was the place to focus in addressing potential abuses.

Lyons Democrat Jonathan Singer wanted to extend the conversation to the House floor. He wasn’t ready to “punt again on this for the third time.”

“I want all 65 eyes in the House on this,” he said. “I’m looking for other amendments. I want to see where the conversation ends up.”

Rep. Jim Wilson, a Salida Republican, said he thought the money being spent on Homlessness would be better spent buying people homes.

“This bill doesn’t solve the problem. I think the solution has been [obvious] the whole time.”

Witnesses in support of the bill included homeless people, formerly homeless people, representatives from nonprofits dedicated to addressing the problem, civil rights organizations and religious leaders.

Witnesses opposed featured mainly local government officials.

John Tomasic

John Tomasic

John Tomasic is a senior political reporter for The Colorado Statesman covering the Colorado Legislature.