Homeless camping ban policies differ widely across Denver metro area

But other laws can also affect where unhoused people may be forced to move

Ellis Arnold
earnold@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 7/11/22

The sight of a person pushing a shopping cart full of belongings, begging for money on major streets or sleeping outdoors is common in many places around the Denver metro area, and the laws that dictate where unhoused people can’t rest differ across the many cities and towns in the region.

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Homeless camping ban policies differ widely across Denver metro area

But other laws can also affect where unhoused people may be forced to move

Posted

The sight of a person pushing a shopping cart full of belongings, begging for money on major streets or sleeping outdoors is common in many places around the Denver metro area, and the laws that dictate where unhoused people can’t rest differ across the many cities and towns in the region.

At least several jurisdictions have no formal camping ban on the books, and Aurora’s new camping ban, which could push people into other areas, illustrates the complexity of laws that affect the unhoused: Whether a person gets moved doesn’t just come down to whether a city has a formal ban or not.

Meanwhile, several cities in the Denver suburbs continue to take steps to address homelessness while a pattern of increasing homelessness in the Denver metro area appears to continue.

“Camping bans do absolutely nothing to resolve homelessness,” said Cathy Alderman, spokesperson for the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. “They may eliminate the visibility of homelessness for a period of time, but they certainly don’t help people get out of the situation of homelessness.”

Some cities make an effort to connect unhoused people with services that can help them, but whether a city extends that hand alongside potential law enforcement can be unclear.

Here’s a look at camping ban policies across many parts of the metro area — and what some cities are doing to help the unhoused.

Enforcement in Aurora unclear

After the Aurora City Council passed the city’s camping ban ordinance March 28, questions have remained about whether people in camps would always be connected with services in tandem with enforcement of the ban.

“There must be a shelter option available for every individual in the camp on the date of an abatement or the abatement of the camp cannot take place,” says an Aurora policy document, using a term for the removal of camps.

The May 19 Aurora policy document, called a “business policy memorandum,” also outlines that the city’s homelessness outreach team can offer transportation for people who want shelter.

But Aurora’s process of contacting a person at an encampment — involving providing verbal notice and a written notice that camping is not permitted — could cause some people to immediately move due to fear of police enforcement, meaning they could be gone before outreach workers can arrive or provide services.

​The city is not required to do anything to ensure that people don't move from a camp before city staff or the city's homeless outreach team can arrive and provide resources, including transportation to a shelter, Ryan Luby, an Aurora spokesperson, confirmed to Colorado Community Media.

The city is not required to inform campers that they can remain at the encampment for up to 10 days until the day of abatement, Luby said.

But in practice, Luby said, community partners offer transportation to resources and shelter “well before an abatement occurs.”

“Staff and community partners provide campers with information about shelter options and other resources from the outset,” Luby said. “That is the expectation.”

Non-police city staff are “almost exclusively” the ones who enforce the camping ban ordinance, according to Luby.

The way Aurora’s camping ban is written appears to leave open the possibility that police can give a verbal “move on” order to tell campers to leave, regardless of whether the city plans to “abate” — meaning “clean and restore” — a camp area.

But in practice, Aurora police and other city staff do not give "verbal or written orders" for people to move from encampments without offering them shelter space, according to Luby.

“Staff’s priority is to connect people in encampments with community partner resources and sheltering options,” Luby said.

If the city has offered a person a shelter space and the person refuses to go to the shelter option or move to another area, the person could see legal consequences.

People who have experienced homelessness told Colorado Community Media in recent years they’ve had concerns that led them to avoid shelters, including worries about safety or being separated from a companion. The advocacy group Denver Homeless Out Loud has also expressed those concerns.

“If someone in an encampment refuses to move after they have been given a verbal or written order to leave an encampment in accordance with policies and the ordinance, they could face a citation or arrest. To date, that has not occurred,” Luby said in early July.

Shelter space at the Comitis Crisis Center and other shelters in Aurora are usually full, Michael Brannen, another Aurora spokesperson, said in March.

Aurora’s new camping ordinance has garnered much attention, but it wasn’t the start of Aurora removing homeless encampments on public property.

Aurora had enacted a policy memorandum in September that outlined when the city can remove encampments on public property based on existing law at the time. The policy memo was written last summer, when a previously proposed camping ban ordinance did not pass a city council vote in August.

Under the policy memo, Aurora had already been able to abate unauthorized camps as long as there was a shelter option for all the individuals in each camp.

Denver in 2012 banned staying in an outdoor place with a tent, sleeping bag or other shelter, a policy that advocates for the homeless have said may be pushing more homeless individuals into the suburbs.

Alderman in March pointed to what she called “the unproductiveness of having competing camping bans between cities,” arguing that camping bans will push people back and forth across city and county lines.

Adams County

Part of Aurora sits in Adams County, not far from several other suburbs with their own varying rules.

Northglenn City Council in 2013 passed a camping ban that applies to public property, such as streets, alleys, sidewalks, park or other recreation areas, or other public property.

Northglenn’s camping ban outlined that police officers can’t issue a citation, or ticket, or make an arrest unless the person has been given a warning order and the officer “attempts to ascertain” whether the person is in need of mental health treatment or homelessness service assistance.

If so, the officer must make “reasonable efforts” to contact an outreach worker who will assess the person’s needs.

Asked whether Northglenn police are instructed to always wait until a worker, or “co-responder,” has spoken with the person before issuing a ticket or arresting the person for camping, Northglenn spokesperson Diana Wilson said they are not.

“All staff, whether coresponder or police officer or another department, respond as is appropriate to the situation,” Wilson said. But she said in practice, a coresponder generally will respond to the camper.

“Due to Northglenn's creative approach with the (city’s) temporary housing program, we have been able to offer a place to go when letting the person know they cannot be camping outside,” Wilson said.

Nearby, Thornton doesn’t have a camping ban ordinance, but its city code says: “No tents or any other types of shelters or structures shall be erected upon any park, parkway, city-owned open space or recreation facility,” except as part of a city-approved activity.

But Thornton Police Department “does not write many summonses” for the tents ordinance, according to the city.

“We have officers who … serve on the Thornton HOT (Homeless Outreach Team) Team that work to get resources to those experiencing homelessness,” Officer Jesus Mendez said through a city spokesperson.

To the east, Commerce City does not have an overall camping ban ordinance but may be looking into issuing one.

“The topic was discussed at the April 18 city council meeting this year, and staff was directed to explore an ordinance for our council to consider,” Travis Huntington, city spokesperson, said in early July. “Staff is currently researching language and regulations from other municipalities, but no proposed ordinance has been drafted or brought to the city council as of yet.”

Up north, Brighton bans camping in open space and parks. But its city code also prohibits maintaining any structure, encroachment or “obstruction of whatever nature” on any public property, right-of-way, sidewalks, parks and other public places.

Asked how the city code provisions affect people who are sitting or lying along rights-of-way or other public property, the city provided a statement from the Brighton Police Department that said:

“Generally speaking, our approach to violations of these sections would be handled initially by trying to achieve voluntary compliance, issuing a warning and connecting them with available resources to address the contributing factors.”

Westminster does not have a camping ban, according to spokesperson Andy Le.

A large portion of Adams County immediately north of Denver is “unincorporated,” meaning it is not within a city or town.

Adams County does not have a camping ban in unincorporated areas, according to county spokesperson Christa Bruning. But the county does have regulations prohibiting obstruction of the public rights-of-way, such as the street, sidewalks or alleys.

“This includes all obstructions — trees, bushes, basketball hoops, large landscaping boulders, etc. — and is not specific to people experiencing homelessness,” Bruning added.

Adams County prohibits all camping in its park areas, Bruning said.

Arapahoe County

In Arapahoe County, Centennial’s law bans camping on city-owned roads, sidewalks, trails, parks and city buildings or other city property. 

The ban also applies to property overseen by the Southeast Metro Stormwater Authority — often called SEMSWA — which generally manages waterways in Centennial. That includes creeks, streams and other drainage areas. 

Many park and open space areas in Centennial aren't city property and still operate under their own rules.

An ordinance banning camping in the City of Sheridan was passed in 2012, according to Arlene Sagee, Sheridan city clerk.

Englewood doesn't have a camping ban for public property in general, but the city's parks and open space rules say overnight camping is prohibited in all parks and areas that are designated for park usage. That includes parking vehicles, trailers or campers used for overnight parking. Parks are closed between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m.

Littleton has no specific “no-camping code,” but that city enforces certain codes — meaning laws or regulations — to the same effect on public property, city spokesperson Kelli Narde said in an April statement.

But if a person is lying or sleeping with a blanket or a backpack in a park area, they generally wouldn’t be breaking Littleton city code until the park closes at night, Littleton City Attorney Reid Betzing confirmed in April.

Aside from a rule about county-managed open spaces, Arapahoe County does not have a camping ban that applies to all types of public property in unincorporated areas in general, said Luc Hatlestad, county spokesperson.

For open spaces managed by Arapahoe County, a resolution approved in 1996 by the county commissioners says it is unlawful to camp or park a trailer or camper for camping purposes in areas that are not specifically designated for camping.

“We do not have any specific ordinances about sidewalks and alleyways, of which there are relatively few in the unincorporated areas,” Hatlestad said.

Jefferson County

Lakewood does not have a citywide camping ban, but other city policies can still affect the unhoused.

“Rather than a camping ban, Lakewood has an ordinance addressing obstructing sidewalks, building entrances and similar locations used for public access. The city also has other ordinances that address other issues or behaviors such as trespassing,” said Stacie Oulton, city spokesperson.

Camping is prohibited in all areas of parks except for designated locations such as Bear Creek Lake Park’s campground, which also requires a park entrance fee and a camping permit, Oulton added.

In Golden, a city ordinance outlined that it is unlawful for any person to camp, sleep overnight, “or in conjunction with such activities, place any tent or construct any type of living quarters or structure upon any property owned by the city.”

Golden also has a city ordinance that prohibits obstructing a roadway, sidewalk, waterway or other passageway.

But “it is the practice of the Golden Police Department to use discretion when responding to calls for service regarding camping,” said Emily Gedeon, city spokesperson. “Specifically, Golden police will most often not cite an individual and instead seek voluntary compliance and provide education on the ordinances in the city and direct them to the nearest resources.”

Wheat Ridge uses a similar approach with its city codes.

A person who is sitting, lying or sleeping on a sidewalk or alley with their belongings or with a blanket, tent, tarp or other shelter would be violating city code, said Joanna Small, city spokesperson.

Similarly, a person who is sitting, lying or sleeping on any type of public property — such as, for example, a waterway or storm drainageway — in the same way would also be violating the city code, Small said.

“Although we may eventually issue citations to people who repeatedly violate these ordinances, we are always willing to work with people first,” Small said. “We have both a coresponder — mental health professional who can come out with our officers and determine if they are in need of some kind of mental health services — and the city also has a housing navigator who can connect them with housing options. Issuing a citation is a last resort.”

Douglas County

Parker approved a camping ban in June 2018. Overnight camping on public property is not allowed in the City of Lone Tree, according to the city’s website.

The Highlands Ranch Metro District is a type of government body called a special district — not a municipality — and is located in unincorporated Douglas County, and thus has different authority than a city would.

A rule related to parks and open space says camping is prohibited without a permit. That rule was added in 2018, according to Sherry Eppers, metro district spokesperson.

The rule applies to all Highlands Ranch Metro District-owned property — that includes parks, open space, parking lots, parkways and property surrounding office buildings, Eppers said.

Castle Rock’s town code says: “It shall be unlawful to camp overnight in any recreation area, except in areas which are designated for camping.”

Similar to other municipalities, the town’s code also says: “It is unlawful for any person to obstruct in any manner any sidewalk, public highway, street or alley in the Town.”

Regarding the town’s limited camping ban, town spokesperson Melissa Hoelting said: “The town is not currently issuing citations under the provision because of continuing legal concerns.”

She added: “Castle Rock is aware of the current legal climate and the various lawsuits filed against other Front Range municipalities regarding the enforcement of criminal laws against those individuals in our communities who are experiencing homelessness … the Community Partnership Unit of our police department reaches out, when feasible, to these individuals to help ensure their safety by connecting them to available resources in our community.”

Spokespersons for Douglas and Jefferson counties did not provide comment by press time regarding policy in unincorporated areas. Arvada and the Town of Morrison also didn’t respond for comment by press time about their policies.

homeless, camping ban, Aurora Colorado, Northglenn, Lakewood, Douglas County, Ellis Arnold

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