Oct 20, 2021 - News

Denver’s homeless ballot initiative strikes a nerve and may pass

People are asked to leave from a homeless camp site by Civic Center Park in mid-September. Photo: Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post via Getty Images

People are asked to leave a homeless campsite by Civic Center Park in mid-September. Photo: Hyoung Chang/Denver Post via Getty Images

Denver officials are increasingly worried that a conservative-backed ballot initiative designed to crack down on homeless camps could pass this November — and they're launching a last-minute attack to puncture the proposal.

Details: Initiated Ordinance 303 would allow residents to sue the city if action isn’t taken on a homeless encampment 72 hours after receiving a citizen complaint. It would also institute a cap of four sanctioned camping sites, of which the city already has two.

Mayor Michael Hancock’s office tells Axios that, if passed, the measure’s "inevitable" legal challenges could come at a steep cost to taxpayers.

Why it matters: The initiative is striking a nerve on both sides of the aisle, as makeshift campsites persist throughout Denver.

  • Republicans and Democrats alike tend to agree that the city has failed to fix its decadeslong camping problem, despite raising taxes to deal with the issue and residents' overwhelmingly voting to uphold a 2012 ordinance that banned urban camping citywide.

Of note: Denver is logging thousands of calls a month for complaints and emergencies related to homeless encampments.

  • In September alone, the city recorded 2,745 complaints, according to data provided to Axios by the Department of Public Safety. That's up from the 2,094 complaints received in August.

What they’re saying: Advocates for the unhoused oppose the measure, including the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, but they tell Axios they’re "concerned" voters are going to give the green light anyway.

  • "I personally believe it will pass north of 70%," says Denver GOP chairman Garrett Flicker, who led the measure. "Democrats are going to vote for it in droves," insiders tell him.

State of play: With just two weeks before Election Day, the Hancock administration has filed a lawsuit against Flicker and the initiative’s four other proponents — Alec Baker, Charles Friedman, Jonah Smith and Matthew Dimms.

  • The City Attorney’s Office argues that the 72-hour window wouldn’t give officials adequate time to investigate a complaint before taking action and they're asking a judge for permission not to implement the rule.
  • Yes, but: Garrett tells Axios "action" could mean posting a notice to vacate, not necessarily displacing people experiencing homelessness.

What else: Earlier this month, Denver City Council unanimously passed a proclamation in opposition to the measure, suggesting it would only hinder the city's approach to housing and homelessness.

  • Meanwhile, the Hancock administration is hurrying to launch a "Street Enforcement Team" of six civilians by the end of this month to help respond to lower-level infractions related to homelessness, including trespassing and obstruction of pathways.

The big picture: The number of people experiencing unsheltered homelessness in the Denver metro area nearly tripled from 2014 to 2020, with more than 1,500 people estimated to be sleeping on sidewalks and streets.

Read our 1-minute voter guide on Initiated Ordinance 303


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