When the right thing to do is helping people break the law; A look at sustainably feeding Denver’s Homeless

Sustainable feeding practices

No waste – open community meals bring people together and embody sustainable practices.

What do you do when it becomes illegal to be homeless or as many prefer – underhoused? What if they put people in jail for trying to survive harsh elements? How does criminalizing homelessness impact the rates of rape and sexual assault in the homeless community? These are some of the questions members of Occupy Denver have been asking residents and tourists along Downtown Denver’s 16th St Mall for over 6 years since Denver’s Unauthorized Camping Ordinance (May 23, 2012) was enacted as law.

This ordinance, which became a tactic of criminalizing disadvantaged humans who often street preform or carry signs requesting donations of assistance across the nation, are best known as Urban Camping bans. Denver is one of the city’s which have lead the way in pushing these ordinances in Colorado. In the University of Denver Sturm College of Law report, “Too High A Price 2: Move on to Where?

In Denver, the price of homes continues to outstrip wage and job growth in the area. Throughout 2017, the price of houses grew at the 5th highest rate in the nation. In Denver, a typical home now requires a salary of more than $81,000 a year. Correspondingly, Denver rental prices are also increasing. In 2017, rental prices rose over 15%. The price of renting a one-bedroom apartment climbed to $1,410 per month, which is roughly 80% of a minimum wage worker’s monthly income. Simultaneously, homelessness did, and continues to, dramatically increase. (Page 4, Too High A Price 2: Move on to Where?)

The picture this report paints in Colorado is a bleak one. In order to bring awareness to the issue, this autonomous group of activists that come out of Occupy Denver and run a Facebook page “Boycott the Urban Camping Ban” calls for a direct repeal of the laws in Denver which criminalize and jail offenders for not being able to afford to spend 80% of their incomes monthly for a roof over their head. In order to draw attention to these laws, community members provide a family meal where all are welcome and clothing is available for those in need.

This sounds like a logical role for a community of humans to fill. People who don’t have beds don’t have kitchens to cook food. Here’s where this takes a twist, because this group of people are not a church, a 501c, or any documented entity – instead they are a Autonomous group holding direct actions – boycotting businesses, educating consumers and tourists, and providing meals for those in need.

In Denver there are many groups that provide food, – like brown bag lunches with a water bottle, plastic sandwich bags, and foil or plastic wrappers leftover from the food inside. Maybe a community effort to provide meals uses warming trays full of food. Generally there are still plastic silverware and Styrofoam cups or plates. Even where paper or other forms of food service are provided – in most settings, it’s disposable. As you already know, disposable is destruction. And this is what makes this community unique. These community meals, served on the 16th St. Mall in Denver, Colorado – are done with a Zero Waste Model in mind.


Members of Occupy Denver provide clothing and sleeping bags to the underhoused in our community. Giving to others and building relationships is a great way to build community.

Meals are prepared in home kitchens. Food preparation varies based on the type of meal being offered. Stainless steel hotel pans, crock pots, Pyrex baking dishes and rice cookers can often be seen lining the streets or stacked on tables. The whole operation pops up in minutes. Before people know it there are five gallon jugs of coffee or water, home cooked meals, day old breads and rescue fruits, vegetables or salads for all who come. This can mean up to 150 people a meal – where all the work is done by compassionate volunteers who give their time to others, because it’s the right thing to do.

Organizing these activities in the community are quite simple. Picking a date, time and location to provide for others where they exist in the community should be quite easy. One key is repetition, both in duties for volunteers and for when/where the action will take place. For many, combining the resources and finding ways to acquire the materials to do pop up programs will be a more challenging task. Additionally, many communities have ‘laws’ against such activities like handing out meals, setting up tables or sitting in public spaces without having funding to pay for a place to sleep. This may cause conflict to arise between ‘police’ who’s job it is to protect property and the ‘rights of businesses’ to profiteer over the rights of humans to survive and receive aid.

The key for those environmentally minded, is how to provide meals without creating massive quantities of waste. The members of Occupy Denver have chosen to create accountability by using all sustainable dishware for those coming every week. Instead of water bottles, 5 gallon jugs are available. Plates and silverware were aired at local thrift stores or by donation. Community members use dishwashers to ease the burden of washing dishes and everybody takes a little to spread out the work. This is also how meals arrive, each week.

For those receiving meals, eating in real plates makes for a nice change. For the community, it just makes good sense and it teaches everybody to be a bit more considerate of the planet. There are other advantages also. From building up community, talking to people and learning their real struggles, even cleaning the dishes at the end of the day, there are many reasons to do the next right thing and give time to those who have less than ourselves. To learn more about homelessness and laws read how laws against homelessness increase the struggle to survive.

Urban Camping – Laws against homelessness increase the struggle to survive

Rock Bottom Firefighter Day

Activists of Occupy Denver outside Rock Bottom Brewery on Denver’s 16th St Mall.  Management claim to be against Denver’s Camping Ban, but have failed to publicly make a stance against Urban Camping Laws.

Denver, Colorado is a booming community located on the east side of the Rocky Mountain foothills.   Called the Mile High City, in 2018 there are few places you can travel in the city for one mile and not see the impacts of homelessness in the city.  Denver has a booming economy supported by a growing mass transit system and an international airport, the economy has been boosted by legalized cannabis reforms.  With all this in mind, Denver has, like many parts of the United States, experienced unsustainable spikes in homelessness issues.  Growing at a pace to keep up with the needs of the community has been a challenge that elected officials have been slow to find the backbone to show serious intent to create lasting solutions.  Denver businesses are a major part of this sluggishness.

In a traditionally corporate-centric move,  Downtown Denver businesses through a local lobbyist group the Downtown Denver Partnership and it’s leader Tammy Door; moved to solidify their profits by choosing to ignore the needs of the laborers that support them.  In 2012, Denver City Council passed the ‘Urban Camping Ban’ an ordinance that made it illegal to ‘camp’ or be homeless in the City and County of Denver.  At the time, it was suggested that Denver was failing in it’s 2005 commitments to eliminate homelessness.  During planning meetings, the Denver Westord reported in 2012 that commentators were very clear that Denver was making laws without proving effective solutions.  “Even if the city doubled its current shelter capacity, it would still not reach the necessary number, says Bennie Milliner, new executive director of Denver’s Road Home.” (Denver Westword, 2012)

Six years after the creation of Urban Camping Ban, activists continue to come out against this law and to promote intentional solutions.  Since the creation of the Urban Camping Ban, efforts by Denver Homeless Outloud, other activist groups and state representatives like Joe Salazar have pushed for the Homeless Bill of Rights – a bill designed to protect human dignity regardless of access to housing.  While this Bill has not passed committee for 3 years, the fact that these topics continue to be pressed by government representatives is a key sign that greater solutions continue to be sought after.

“What has been proven, that making laws against human survival, are inhumane and ineffective.  “City officials claim that they do not criminalize homelessness, but these statistics validate that they do. In 2017 alone, 4,647 people violating the camping ban were contacted by police. Make no mistake: even if a person is not arrested, ticketed or fined under this law, the very act of being contacted by law enforcement, asked to move along, or searched because of their unsheltered status amounts to a criminalization of that status. These individuals have all been told that they are committing a crime, by surviving. Sleeping with covers is essential to keeping proper body protection; criminalizing the ability to cover yourself is a threat to one’s life. Forcing people to move along results in the constant disruption of sleep and requires people to relocate to oftentimes hidden and unsafe locations. These police contacts are not only unnecessary, they compound the condition of homelessness, be it by the negative health effects, losing one’s personal documents or identification in the ensuing disruption, or resulting in a criminal record for merely surviving. 2016 saw a 500% increase in enforcement of the survival ban [urban camping ban], and 2017 numbers remain just as high. This is kind of response to a human health epidemic must be repealed for sanity’s sake of survival.” (Denver Westword, 2017)

Homeless Denver April 21 2018 004

Denver, CO Community members sheltering from the snow on April 21, 2018 one day after the city hosted a public celebration of cannabis downtown. (Photo by David Anderson)

Today, May 7, 2018 Denver Homeless Outloud, will be hosting an event to release a report, Too High a Price: What Criminalizing Homelessness Costs Colorado, the second report from The University of Denver Sturm College of Law on homelessness and the laws against survival.  In the online abstract there are staggering facts like this,

“Many cities aggressively target homeless residents for panhandling and for trespassing. Fewer than half of the cities surveyed have restrictions on begging or panhandling, yet Denver arrested nearly 300 homeless individuals in 2014 for panhandling. Between 2013 and 2014, Denver issued over 2,000 trespass citations to homeless individuals. This represents more than half of all trespass citations in the city even though homeless residents are only 0.05% of the population.”

Laws against homelessness don’t work, they enhance the issue by pushing decriminalization instead of interactive support systems.  These laws, focused on persecuting people, are often presented and passed through pressure of lobby groups and campaign partnerships of local legislatures.  This is a common practice in the United States.  Lobby groups commonly write and push laws they design.  In a post I wrote back in 2015 on Microbead Legislation, I showed how microplastic manufacturers helped to write those laws.

As a plan of action, it’s important that we take action directly to prevent laws against homelessness to be written in our community.  Providing effective integrated solutions within our communities is not only more humane, it eliminates the need for such laws.  Business lobby groups indicate that the sight of homelessness is a blight, that it negatively impacts their abilities to be profitable.  They often do and say this while missing on the fact that within their own staff, most Millions of Americans are one paycheck away from homelessness.

So what do we do?  Between my job, feeding my family and paying my taxes – it’s hard enough!  Here are 3 places to start.
1) Stay involved in the activities of your local government.  Speaking out against laws that negatively impact homelessness can be a push to –

2) Support and volunteer with organizations that provide solutions.  Rising rents, underemployment and medical conditions are top reasons why homelessness exists.  Giving time and energy to help others has many rewards, most importantly you make a difference in people’s lives.

3) Open up space in your home.  Using a toilet in peace, taking a shower and having a good nights sleep are things most readers will take for granted.  Providing these to another human being is a humbling, life changing experience.  Through personal relationships and volunteering at your church or community centers it’s easy to meet and get to know a person seeking to keep their head above water.  Once the fear is gone, the freedom of helping others directly will change your life.

Homelessness isn’t always a choice, the focus of capitalistic values on property can often make it difficult to achieve such standards.  However, by working together we can achieve a standard where people don’t have to struggle for survival and fear arrest for being forced to sleep on the street.