A controversial ordinance banning urban camping may increase vulnerability to trafficking in the state of Colorado. The ban was passed by the Denver City Council in May 2012 and essentially criminalizes homeless individuals sleeping on the streets. The ordinance states:
“Whereas, the act of unauthorized camping on public or private property tends to endanger the health and safety of those engaged in such camping as well as the public-at-large, it shall be unlawful for any person to camp upon any private property.”
Violators of this ordinance may face a fine and up to a year in jail. Supporters claim the measure will improve the storefronts of businesses and that rather than using the ban as a punitive measure, the police should lightly enforce it as a means to help homeless individuals attain services. Proponents of the ban promise an increase in shelter space and services.
Critics argue the ban has negative ramifications for Denver’s estimated 11,167 homeless individuals and 921 homeless youth. As these individuals are pushed out of the downtown area, service providers will likely experience increased difficulty reaching these populations.
A significant concern regarding this ban – especially given limited access to services – is the increased risk of commercial sexual exploitation. Homeless youth are especially vulnerable to human trafficking and are often solicited by pimps for prostitution in locations where homeless youth congregate. According to Prax(us), a Denver-based organization that combats human trafficking, when individuals lack survival resources such as food, shelter and money, they are more likely to end up in human trafficking situations to meet those needs. Isolation further compounds this problem.
Prax(us) notes that because Colorado has only defined trafficking as a crime in the past seven years, it is difficult to determine the scope of trafficking in the state. The National Alliance to End Homelessness notes complications in measuring exploitation among homeless youth, as they may not recognize themselves as victims of a crime. They also may not be willing to come forth and self-identify as victims because they feel shame or because their experiences are too painful to disclose.
There are signs the ban may increase the risk of trafficking by rendering individuals more vulnerable to exploitative situations. According to the 2013 Denver Camping Ban: A Report From the Street, the ban has failed to improve homeless persons’ living conditions. The report found that police are rarely connecting the homeless to services and more homeless individuals are seeking hidden places to sleep outside and have been moving further away from downtown Denver. Many individuals reported feeling less safe with their sleeping situation after the ban and experienced difficulty attaining shelter.
As a result of the ban, more individuals are seeking services including shelter, yet there have not been significant increases in services to meet this demand. According to Tom Luehrs, executive director of the St. Francis Center, while some of the ban’s promises have been implemented – such as additional 155 winter shelter spaces for men and 55 year-round shelter spaces for women – other services have yet to be instituted, such as additional permanent overnight shelter for men, women and couples, as well as a 24/7 Rest and Resource Center. These initiatives are scheduled to be implemented within the year.
Given the effects of the Urban Camping Ban, Denver must consider if there are alternative strategies to improve the living conditions of the homeless while not increasing their vulnerability. Denver Homeless Out Loud suggests expanding shelter options (especially for under-served populations) and designating well-lit, safe, outdoor spaces where homeless individuals can sleep without breaking the law. Addressing homelessness more effectively will both decrease vulnerability to exploitation and trafficking and promote fundamental human rights.
*The views and opinions expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the position of the HTC