On Thursday of this past week, residents of Denver awoke to a frigid -10 degrees Fahrenheit, colder than it had been in the city on any Dec. 8 in nearly a century. It was so cold in Colorado and neighboring Wyoming that the Moscow Ballet canceled a performance trip to Denver because their tour buses couldn’t start.
It was also legal for police to confiscate homeless people’s blankets, tents, and sleeping bags — for many, a necessary defense against weather that could easily turn deadly. If this seems hard to believe, there’s video evidence: Police were caught on camera taking blankets from a homeless person reported to be a veteran.
(A video of another similar confiscation may be viewed here.)
When the videos went viral, people were understandably outraged and demanded the confiscations immediately cease. One letter to Denver Mayor Michael Hancock and the Denver City Council decried expenditure of “City funds to harass, jail, and endanger people who are forced to sleep outside in the dead of winter,” charging the city government with a shameful level of cruelty on the taxpayer’s dime.
The good news is the uproar worked.
As of Saturday, Hancock ordered Denver police to stop confiscating survival gear from the homeless:
“As a city, we have a responsibility and moral obligation to protect the lives of our residents,” Hancock said in a statement. “Urban camping — especially during cold, wet weather — is dangerous and we don’t want to see any lives lost on the streets when there are safe, warm places available for people to sleep at night.”
The shift came after civil rights organizations and attorneys demanded Friday that the city stop seizing the property of homeless people and threatened a federal lawsuit.
This is a win for private property and against overcriminalization that could literally save lives in harsh winter weather.
Unfortunately, the confiscation ban only lasts through April, and the city’s “urban camping” ordinance, which lets Denver fine homeless people up to $999 just for the “crime” of sleeping outside, will continue to be enforced.
Homelessness is a tricky problem for city governments, to be sure, but draconian, inhumane measures like these — and Denver is far from the only unreasonable city where homelessness is concerned — are not the solution. That is evident to anyone with even a little common sense and basic human decency, and it shouldn’t have taken sub-zero weather for Denver to figure it out.