Unhealthy by Design

By S.E. Fleenor

On April 13, researchers at CU Denver released a new study on the criminalization of homelessness in Denver called “Unhealthy by Design.”The report was presented by Tony Robinson, Ph.D., a professor at CU Denver with assistance from Denver Homeless Out Loud. Marisa Westbrook, MPH, a PhD candidate, served as the co-researcher on the report, but did not present.

In the fall and winter of 2018, data was collected by volunteers who visited areas frequented by people experiencing homelessness throughout Denver, resulting in 484 respondents with recent experience of being homeless partaking in a survey. The survey responses were analyzed by Robinson and Westbrook.

The report provides evidentiary proof that “tough love” quality of life laws do not have a positive impact on this population, but instead result in decreased physical and mental health. Furthermore, the report found that increased contact with police and the impact of those interactions on sleep quality and duration, access to facilities to clean up and use the restroom, and safety while sleeping unhoused are directly correlated with the introduction of the Urban Camping Ban in 2012.

“Prior to the ban, I had only one unprovoked contact with the police in three and a half years. In the five months since the ban, I’ve had cops roll up on me several times, asking stupid questions and for [identification],” on survey respondent said. 

One notable conclusion of the survey is that “‘Quality of life’ policing leads individuals to seek more hidden [or] isolated sleeping locations, undermining their safety: Our respondents all indicate increased rates of robbery, physical violence, and sexual assault.”

In reality, 3,445 people sleep unhoused every night in Denver, according to the Point in Time survey of the City and County of Denver—and the City lacks the resources to provide shelter to over 600 of those people experiencing homelessness every night. The Point in Time survey should not be considered complete, as only those who are observable are counted in one night.

The Urban Camping Ban and other “quality of life” laws are designed to keep people from stopping, resting, or using shelter including blankets, umbrellas, or extra clothing. What are over 600 unhoused people supposed to do every night? During the cold winters and the hot summers when most homeless shelters ask residents to leave during the day, what are 3,445 people supposed to do to protect themselves from the elements?

The survey found that people sleeping outdoors overnight moved often to avoid contact with police. Thirty percent of the female respondents who did so experienced sexual assault, 43% experienced physical assault, 38% robbery, and 61% of all female respondents who moved often experienced violent threats. There is a direct correlation between increased contact with police and increased exposure to violence.

Additionally, 19% of respondents reported problems with dehydration, almost 10% experienced frostbite, and six percent have had a heat stroke. According to the report, prohibitions of shelter directly lead to decreased physical health.

The in-depth survey dives into the physical and mental health outcomes of sleep deprivation, physical violence, and living under a constant threat of interacting with the police. Ultimately, the report supports the reduction of these laws, including by the upcoming Initiative 300, which Denver voters will consider this May.

Robinson believes that Initiative 300 is key to turning the tide on how Denver legislates regarding homelessness. 

“This ordinance would immediately improve the living situation for hundreds or even thousands of people in this city. They’d sleep better. They’d be safer. They’d be less likely to be raped or beaten up. They’d be mentally more able to handle the challenges of their day,” he said during the presentation. “All of that would immediately happen, so [Initiative 300] is not a solution, but it’s definitely a proven, documented, step forward and an improvement.”

The report is available in full on the Denver Homeless Out Loud website: denverhomelessoutloud.org ■