Recently, Denver has swung back-and-forth between allowing and banning camping by the homeless in public spaces. We are, for the moment at least, in banning mode, which may have been solidified by the recent discovery of a rat infestation among camps on the grounds of the State Capital.
This public health dimension adds complexity to what has been primarily a constitutional and civil rights issue — are such bans cruel and unusual punishment, as a judge recently ruled? are they tantamount to criminalizing the homeless, as some claim?
The issue is tough to parse, but worth a try:
A public space is intended to be open to everyone without regard to criteria — age, sex, ethnicity and the like — that are irrelevant to the general purpose and specifically intended uses of the space.
But every public space comes with limitations, including legally enforceable rules and restrictions, meant to assure that all its patrons can enjoy it as intended, without hindrance.
Where multiple uses are allowed, no single use should interfere with the others, and precedence usually goes to those most vulnerable. On public trails, for example, if bicycles are allowed, they normally must yield to pedestrians.
Some activities are legitimately banned if they interfere with the intended use(s) of a public space: no bicycles on downtown sidewalks; no speed-skating on public rinks; no camping on public golf courses or in municipal ball-parks.
Public parks are the hardest to categorize because they have many legitimate uses, some of which (sun-bathing?) may not be specified.
Probably the best way to sum up the multiple uses of a public park is The Healthy Enjoyment of the Outdoors, aka Nature.
In a bountiful country like ours, we may take for granted access to nature in our mountains, forests, and seashores. But most cities do not have these amenities, and public parks are their natural, and vital, substitute.
Camping isn’t within the normally intended use of any public park. Whatever our sympathies for the homeless, by what right would we give up rare, essential, natural, public space to what is a private activity?
Would we ever countenance a millionaire’s setting up a similar living facility in a public park? If no, on what grounds could we legitimately accept a homeless person’s doing precisely that? The homeless should have our sympathy, but they have no more, and no fewer, rights in this regard than our hypothetical millionaire.
If, within the scope of reasonable, non-discriminatory laws, we say no to homeless camping in public facilities like parks, we aren’t necessarily criminalizing homelessness any more than we would be criminalizing millionaireness.
The question of homeless camping in public parks is a matter of principle, but also one of practicality. One homeless camper in a park wouldn’t put a dent in its ability to provide city dwellers a nature break, but the homeless are highly mobile and they logically and sensibly gravitate to cities that are less unwelcoming than others.
How many tent-camps in the most cherished park in America’s most liberal city would it take to turn it from a model of compassion to an angry fortress?
This is not to trivialize homelessness. We should be sympathetic to the homeless, but we should be practical. Degrading one of our vital assets won’t work. Worse, it risks giving us the self-satisfied illusion that we’ve done something to alleviate homelessness.
Public and private activism and resources are needed to deal with homelessness. Asking our parks to bear the burden is no help to those who need it and worse than no help to a public resource we all need.