An Open Letter to a Mayor Reluctant to Decriminalize Homelessness
BY NOAH JENNINGS PUBLISHED JANUARY 26, 2010
Last week, criminalization of the homeless in Boulder, Colorado got the attention of End Homelessness readers as grassroots activists fought to put an end to a camping ordinance that unfairly targets the homeless. Thanks to Change.org readers and a protest organized by the homeless and their supporters, Mayor Susan Osborne agreed to make camping tickets a priority. She also ordered her city manager to write up an emergency moratorium on camping tickets. It looked like a victory. But politics being what they are, Mayor Osborne backslid. The following is an open letter to Mayor Osborne.
Dear Mayor Osborne,
I’m writing to you because we want the same things. We share this little city and want it to be a safe place for everyone, both the homeless and the housed, those alone on the streets and those at home with families, the wealthy and the not-so-much, small business owners and the unemployed. I write to you as a friend because I know we share a desire to end criminalization of the homeless in Boulder and uphold the human rights of every single citizen. That’s why you became mayor; that’s why I write about and work with the homeless.
I read this weekend in the local paper that you felt “boxed in” by petitioners and protesters at the Boulder city council meeting last Tuesday. You said this pressure was largely the reason you promised to consider an emergency ordinance putting a temporary halt to ticketing homeless people for sleeping in public places.
Now it looks as if you’ve rescinded that promise, citing the need to reconsider without the interference of a public meeting or the review of the citizens who elected you. The paper made it sound as if you only agreed to stop punishing the homeless because you were intimidated by all the protesters. That’s disappointing, because it’s exactly the opposite of what our grassroots coalition hoped to do. The point was to convince, not coerce. And now it sounds as if you believe we twisted your arm.
Rather than intimidating you, we hoped to inspire you with the possibility of creating a city that does not punish those who don’t have homes. We hoped to appeal to not just your sentiment to do the right thing and end criminalization of the homeless in Boulder, but to your sound judgment as well, based overwhelming evidence that anti-homeless laws are bad policy.
It seems more likely to me that you were influenced by other stakeholders who expressed fear about the possibility of seeing a tent city spring up in a town known for its beauty and affluence. People are scared. I know. I’ve heard parents who have never interacted with a homeless person argue against allowing space for them to camp without harassment because they’re afraid it might lead to a city where children aren’t safe to play. But we both know that letting fear dictate policy is not the answer.
Widespread economic volatility creates difficult situations for a small community with disparate needs. Families need to feel comfortable. But to punish the city’s dispossessed with cruel and unconstitutional laws is cutting corners in the effort to make our community a better place for everyone. Alienating a marginalized group through discriminatory laws hurts more people than it intends to help. What’s more, and this is what saddens me the most, it creates unnecessary class conflict in a town once known for its progressiveness.
As the fight over Boulder’s mistreatment of the homeless continues, people all over the world have come to know about it. The shame of this fact is an eyesore uglier than any encampment. The ACLU agrees. In addition to bad publicity, hundreds of people have protested the city’s willingness to punish the homeless for not having a home. Concerned citizens from Boulder to Lisbon have written you with two requests:
1) Suspend what’s become known as the camping ticket ordinance.
2) Hold a transparent meeting with leaders from grassroots organizations like H.O.M.E., the Homeless Ordinance Moratorium Endeavor, who have already submitted to you alternatives to the current law.
Of course homelessness is much larger than this small ordinance. Anyone could get lost in the issue. It’s maddening to tackle. But this is something we can do to address the suffering of our city’s most vulnerable. Please join me in fighting for our city and its integrity.
Photo credit: Marty Caivano/The Daily Camera
Tell the City of Boulder to Stop Punishing the Homeless