On American citizenship, affordable housing, and people who are homeless

A Colorado House Committee will meet on the Right to Rest Bill tomorrow – Wednesday – at 2:15 in the State Capitol, room 271. This is a third time, and gradually, representatives are beginning to learn about this issue. As I trace below, it is central to community, here as elsewhere, and for those in Denver, a strong turnout including among those who are housed and “full citizens,” would be very helpful.


At a candlelight vigil in January, people mourned those who are unhoused in Denver and died in 2016. Francis Gene Black Elk, Daryl Blackbear, Patricia Barrett, Ernest Gillespie, George Mondragon, Erin Mesta, Shawn “Butterfly” Porter, Quinasia Russell, Rose Ruiz, Eugene Turner, Gerald Vaughan, Lisa Ware, Todd Burton, Elvis Thunderhawk…Indigenous American, black, chicano, arab, white. 174 people without homes were found dead in the streets of Denver. Some were veterans of foreign wars. ”’Sandy Colfax’” had only a main street – Colfax Avenue – for a family name, hair-color for a given one… Tarell was buried with no family name…

Storeowners fear people who are homeless, who have slept outside, un-showered, unkempt, blocking the entrance to their shops. Customers are sometimes deterred or annoyed by people sitting or standing nearby or asking for money (often, people without homes make signs for cars and stand out near stop signs…).

But why are so many people on the street? In 2015, in a one night survey of those comparatively easy to locate, they numbered at least 6,130 in Denver. 24.5% were women with small children. Numbers for everyone who is on the street at some point during the year – unmeasured, so far – are probably 5 or even 10 times higher.

For the United States as a whole, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development Annual Homelessness Report, for January 2014, on any given night, at least 578,424 individuals were homeless. 153,000 of these – roughly 25% – slept outside: under bridges, in cars, in parks, on the sidewalk, or in abandoned buildings.

Among the homeless were “approximately 45,205 unaccompanied children,” those under 25 years of age. Such minors comprise roughly 10% of people without homes. In 2015, there were 2,082 unaccompanied Colorado children (k-12) on the street.

In 2015, 39,471 people without homes had served in foreign wars. These individuals are not only our fellow citizens but American patriots. In Colorado, 1,181 vets were homeless, an increase of 24%.

These figures are roughly the same in cities across the country, swelling during times of economic downturn, since 1983 when a large number of people, for the first time since World War II, were made homeless by cuts in federal spending on housing.

“Druggies” says Denver Police Chief White’s office, “drunkards.” They are other. Push any thought of their citizenship, service, or even humanity away…

Many thus think of them as a dysfunctional collective – “the homeless” – not as our fellow citizens with inalienable rights who cannot afford rent. Politicians and the well-to-do say to themselves mistakenly that every single person on the street is at fault. In sociology, this is known as blaming the victim and fails to ask about the social structural, as well as public policy causes of broad social “problems.” For individuals who are without homes do not make these policies; they suffer from them. The powerful and well-to do, who are responsible, project out onto others.

If you are married, even with a college degree, and you suffer abuse and get divorced, you and your children may not find affordable housing in Denver. Like every other American city over the past 50 years, Denver has become “renewed” and “gentrified.” High rises soar where affordable housing and cheaper rooming houses once flourished. Developers eye vacant property to build more. They call in the police to destroy “tiny homes” and “resurrection villages.” Rents have skyrocketed. Once upon a time, a young person out of high school or college could work an ordinary job, say at a coffee shop, a restaurant or a car dealership, and afford a studio apartment. No more.

At Metropolitan State University, where I have taught occasionally, some 10% of students live in their cars. At least one department quietly collects food for students who are struggling. Many cannot come regularly to classes because they have two or even three jobs, and hold on by their fingernails. They work hard at and participate in classes, I can attest. And this state school is one of the glories of the Auraria Campus in downtown Denver.

The Colorado legislature now outlaws sleeping in a car. Often, police roust people who find a heating vent to sleep on for a few hours.

Those who are homeless often recently held regular jobs and vote. Even now, at least 25% work…One person I know, a fourth generation Coloradoan, worked 10 hour days as a short order chef, but could not afford an apartment in Denver. He lives partly in cheap hotels, partly on the street.

Individuals without homes were often abused in their families, had a serious illness, lost jobs, work full-time at minimum or low wages and cannot afford urban rent, or were child prey for sex trafficking. If people come to be on the street, they lose their voices entirely, are regarded by storeowners, police, lawyers, and journalists neither as citizens nor as human. Except for church people, who sometimes remember “there but for the grace of God go I” and some ordinary folks, many treat you as invisible.

Yet people without homes are just as much citizens of the United States of America as any of us. In the words of the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights – today’s constitutional law – they “are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

But American citizenship, in this case, is barely formal, a shadow. Do individuals without homes actually have voices and rights? Not in Denver or Boulder or Fort Collins or Colorado Springs. In fact, Colorado cities have passed an angry cluster of 351 anti-homeless ordinances. In Colorado, Oregon and California, there is not even a right to rest.

Being an American citizen – a citizen equal to the rest of us – is, however, something that deserves legislative and political priority. If you are divorced or sick or have a large student debt and end up without a home, how do your economic circumstances criminalize necessary human functions like sleep? In an ostensibly free country, how does being poor strip a citizen of her rights? How can there be solo teenagers on the street, their citizenship denied, who are prey for sex traffickers?

This winter in Denver, any of our fellow citizens found on the street or a park bench or on a heating grate in a sleeping bag can be harassed, fined or arrested. In the snow or sleet…

Such a person cannot sleep in her own car…

Get sick, lose a job and an apartment, be subject to physical or sexual abuse, and – against the highest laws and obligations of the United States – a citizen becomes, in effect, an illegal immigrant.

Her crime is being there. She is arrested and fined not for any actual “crime” but for a status. For the last two centuries, every forty years or so, there have been a now horrifying wave of anti-poor laws. Denver’s anti-homeless laws are just like, once upon a time, the “sundown laws” of racist towns, including in Colorado, where black people, out after dark, were beaten or killed.

The anti-homeless laws closely resemble the “ugly laws” in San Francisco and across the country from 1860 on banning disabled or disfigured people from even appearing in public spaces. These edicts have pretty well the same ugly motivations as our current “unsightly” ordinances. Laws against people who are without homes also recall California’s “anti-Okie laws” during the Depression, where hardworking farmers, starved out by the dust bowl, desperately sought work.

All of us are now repelled by the bigoted “laws” of yesterday. They violate the very promise of America, the meaning, constitutionally speaking, of citizenship and inalienable rights. This is the central public and legal issue which should make legislatures jump to solve our newly created – our politically created – problem of people living in the street.

Instead, city officials are cruel, invoking the same old “reasons” – blaming the victim, the “other” – and in the same thoughtless way…

Yes, having our parks occupied by people without homes, having them congregate near stores is not okay. But this should be a matter of subsidiary legal importance compared to whether the rights of each of them, as a citizen, are recognized. They are not.

As the Justice Department argued in a brief to the District Court in Janet F. Bell et al v. the City of Boise, if a person has no home and there are no shelters available, then sleep cannot, constitutionally speaking, be a crime:

“Because the summary briefing in this case makes clear that there is a significant dispute between the parties on the applicability of Jones and conflicting lower court case law in this area, the United States files this Statement of Interest to make clear that the Jones framework is the appropriate legal framework for analyzing Plaintiffs’ Eighth Amendment claims [that amendment bars cruel and unusual punishment]. Under the Jones framework, the Court should consider whether conforming one’s conduct to the ordinance is possible for people who are homeless. If sufficient shelter space is unavailable because a) there are inadequate beds for the entire population, or b) there are restrictions on those beds that disqualify certain groups of homeless individuals (e.g., because of disability access or exceeding maximum stay requirements), then it would be impossible for some homeless individuals to comply with these ordinances. As set forth below, in those circumstances enforcement of the ordinances amounts to the criminalization of homelessness, in violation of the Eighth Amendment.”

On most nights, people out of doors, at the very least frequently awakened and moved on, cannot get more than a few hours sleep. Sleep deprivation is listed as a leading cause of high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke by Harvard Medical School, and is, infamously, a form of torture. Their lives shortened by a minimum of one-third; people who are chronically homeless live, on average, between 42 and 52 years. Here is a shocking measure of inequality: a Coloradoan who dies at 80 lives nearly two lifetimes compared to her fellow citizens without a home who die at 42.

In a January 2015 Denver point-in-time – one night – survey, 13% of the 6,130 people without homes were shelterless. In the dead of winter, a minimum of 800 people sleep outside. Partly, there are not enough beds for people without homes. In addition, Samaritan House and other shelters are restrictive. These organizations do not accept couples, either heterosexual or gay and lesbian. They bar transgender people. They do not accept pets, sometimes a lifeline of companionship. People without homes also often do not choose to stay there. For shelters cram people in. They are often conveyor belts for disease. Those who run the shelters are sometimes authoritarian. If you talk back or even ask questions, you can be permanently barred from them. If you are mentally ill…

Affordable housing is scarce in Colorado. A homeless woman who is also an historian had to wait two years to get one of the few affordable units. She was determined and lucky. Waiting lists are long, for most, but a tantalizing mirage.

Dressed in a suit, my brother in law napped briefly after lunch in the sun on a park bench outside the building in downtown Denver where he works. He was questioned by police. If we continue these policies against the homeless, the housed, too, can be moved on…

The 351 anti-homeless ordinances in Colorado, typical of cities across the country, create a kind of state of emergency, unevenly enforced so far, against people who are poor. These laws are radically undemocratic.

This past September, Jerry Burton, a former marine, and 8 other people without homes, sued the city of Denver for sweeps which stole the tents and sleeping bags that keep them alive in winter. The police also confiscated driver’s licenses – often, their only identification – radios, bicycles, tools, family photos, clothing, medication, and military records. As the class action suit underlines, sweeps make citizens identity-less. In December, after much public outcry, Mayor Hancock ordered police to halt these confiscations.

To counter dehumanization, we the people of the United States must ensure that there is affordable housing available to each citizen. Legislatures, state and federal, need to allocate money – say, in public works programs – to get decent apartments built or rehab affordable hotels (west and east of downtown on Colfax Avenue, for example). That would both provide construction jobs and, more importantly, eliminate police harassment of the 153,000 of our fellow American citizens who sleep outside.

In 1937, protest created the Department of Housing and Urban Development. That Department once subsidized affordable housing in American cities. Under President Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1960s, there was no problem of homelessness in the United States. The federal government then spent some $68 billion a year to provide urban apartments and adequate rural housing.

During a recession between 1979-83, however, Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan slashed these programs $54 billion a year, that is, by 77%. Cumulatively, they cut some $270 billion of spending on construction. Once the economy recovered, these cuts were not restored. In effect, these Presidents plucked the heart out of affordable housing. Their policy created the so-called “problem of homelessness” where none had existed before. These policies amplified child sex trafficking…

I spoke with Paul Boden, leader of Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP) about this drastic change:

“Between 1979 and 1983, we saw $54 billion a year in cuts to affordable housing. By the winter of 1982, we were opening up emergency shelter programs across the country at a rate we had not seen since the Great Depression. Here we are now, 30 years later.

When you look at it from a global perspective, what you notice is, the funding was never restored. You can’t continue to decimate financial support systems when housing is a commodity and not think that people without the financial means aren’t going to suffer from it. You just can’t do it. And clearly, we are doing it.”

As Boden underlines, before 1979, mentally ill people, poor people, gay people, sexually abused children, nonetheless, did not live on the street.

“Granted, people will say, ‘Housing isn’t the only reason people are homeless.’ Well, frankly, mental illness existed before 1983. Sexual abuse existed before, and sure as hell poverty and racism existed. So, when you talk about homelessness, not all of the other social justice issues, but the issue of people living without housing, I don’t see how you can disregard the dramatic impact and effect that these massive federal cuts had on the living conditions of people in local communities.”
In Janet F. Bell v. Boise, the Justice Department invoked the Eighth Amendment, to argue that citizens who are without homes must have a place to sleep. Laws barring cruel and unusual punishment would overrule most such ordinances. In 2010, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals also overturned, for vagueness, a Los Angeles statute which universally barred individuals from sleeping in a car. Within the framework of Constitutional citizenship, there are ways to provide reasonable limits on where people may congregate or sleep. So far, anti-homeless ordinances are rarely among them.
Moreover, economic costs cut sharply against criminalization. In ”Too High a Price: What Criminalizing Homelessness Costs Colorado,” a 2015 report from the University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law, underlines:
“In 2014 alone, Denver spent nearly three-quarters of a million dollars ($750,000) enforcing five ordinances. We estimate that just six Colorado cities spent a minimum of five million dollars ($5,000,000) enforcing fourteen anti-homeless ordinances over a five-year period.”
According to the City of Denver’s Crime Prevention and Control Commission, the cost to the state of a person who is chronically homeless is $35,000 per year. This is money spent on shelters, food and medical care, but also for harassment
By contrast, the Utah legislature has funded a Housing First program. Over the “past nine years, Utah has decreased the number of homeless by 72%—largely by finding and building apartments where they can live, permanently, with no strings attached.” Officials estimate that Utah’s Housing First program “cost[s] between $10,000 and $12,000 per person,” one-third of the cost to taxpayers in Denver of criminalizing a person on the street.
Following Utah’s example, affordable housing should be a centerpiece of new public works programs in the United States. A public works initiative to make American cities decent for all and a crucial step to aid many of “the forgotten” would be to build affordable housing. Building affordable apartments could also deal with growing rural homelessness.

Since 2006, the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless (CCH) has launched a Housing First initiative. CCH manages over sixteen housing developments that are sustainably built and located near public transit.

Since 2014, Colorado has established 78 problem-solving courts in 20 judicial districts. These include separate courts for drugs, DUI, mental health, veterans and dependency/neglect. The Denver County and Municipal Recovery Court, established in April 2014, directly seeks to break the cycle of people without homes caught up in the criminal justice system,

Since the Recovery Court opened, there has been a 76% reduction of days participants have spent in jail, a 71% reduction in the number of arrests, and a 60% reduction in detox and emergency room visits. The Recovery Court program proceeds in four stages: housing, treatment for substance abuse, employment, and training in financial skills. 95% of the clients are people without homes…

Each of the 174 people who died on the street in 2016 was an American citizen and a Coloradoan whose human rights were violated by the police merely because of their status.

Lelia Trump, Stephanie Carol Trevino, Wade Hunter, Standing Crow Roy Colton, Mark Jensen, Alisha Ulibarri, Steven Lee Vester, Ladonna Bell, Jamar Leckman, Carolyn Laguardia…Indigenous, black, chicano, white. Some were veterans of foreign wars…