by Carrie Baatz

 

It’s been a long day. You’re anxious to come home, where you can take off your shoes, start dinner and relax.

I never used to think twice about coming home. My safe space, where I retreat, recharge and recover, is always there. It is a bedrock that sustains my vitality in work, relationships, trials and adventures.

Every year, the number of people without homes is increasing across the United States. In El Paso County, there are at least 1,302 people who are homeless, according to Point in Time surveys. Surprisingly to some, the majority of people who are homeless have disabilities. They are veterans, single mothers, domestic violence survivors, youth and older people who are constantly in danger of attack, vulnerable to physical, mental and emotional trauma. Living in the elements, people are at high risk for developing physical and mental disabilities.

We know from the National Law Center on Poverty and Homelessness that the leading cause of homelessness is lack of affordable and accessible housing. In the Pikes Peak Region, if you earn less than $17,000 per year, then your chances of finding a home you can afford are less than 1 in 5.1

As a community organizer at The Independence Center, I came to know and love many people who live outside. The stories they told me were striking – not only because they revealed suffering. They also felt familiar. I noticed that they shared commonality with my story. On some level, we all experience loss, disability or trauma. We face the possibility of losing those foundations that keep us secure.

Looking back at my life, I realize that if it were not for my access to good health care and education, and people who have supported me, chances are pretty good that I would be outside too.

 

The world of homelessness is different than the world of housed people.

On top of the challenges that come with surviving, there are camping bans, food sharing bans, and sit-lie laws that criminalize people for being homeless. These laws are expensive, costing $152,502 in Colorado Springs.2 They make it harder for people to access resources and services that they need. By citing criminal charges, these laws also add to the barriers people face when job-seeking and home-seeking, perpetuating the cycle of poverty.

I work downtown, and I often do a lot of walking, especially when the weather is nice. I have multiple disabilities that cause pain and fatigue in my joints. On a bad day, when I’ve been walking a long way, I find that I have to sit down and rest. When I walk downtown, I enjoy being able to sit wherever I want, without the fear that I am breaking the law.

My friends who are homeless are treated differently. They experience chronic displacement, uprooted from their camps every couple of weeks. Every night they are vigilant and awake because they will be told to move on, when there is nowhere to go. They walk for miles every day just to find a meal or meet an appointment at an agency, only to be told they are not allowed rest in a public space if their body is hurting.

It is difficult for most of us to witness extreme poverty, and harder still to allow ourselves to feel compassion. Our society has chosen to perpetuate the myth that a person is a criminal if they don’t have a home.

On the margins, there are powerful movements led by houseless people which are challenging this injustice in painstaking steps. The Homeless Bill of Rights, also known as the Right to Rest Act was presented to the Colorado House Local Government Committee for the third time on April 19, 2017. Regrettably, the bill was defeated in committee in an 8-5 vote. It would have protected people who live in poverty or homelessness by ensuring their human right to survive. The bill would not allow people to commit crimes, nor would it prevent police officers from enforcing the law.

 

The Homeless Bill of Rights seeks to protect four basic human rights:

  1. The right to move freely, rest, sleep and protect oneself from the elements in public spaces.
  2. The right to occupy a legally parked vehicle.
  3. The right to a reasonable expectation of privacy of your property in public space.
  4. The right to eat, share, accept or give food in any public space in which having food is not prohibited.3

The Right to Rest Act will be back in 2018. In the mean-time, Colorado will continue to spend millions of dollars ticketing, citing and incarcerating people who have no choice but to try to survive outside.2 The way we spend government dollars reveals our priorities. Consider this: If the resources we invested criminalizing people who are homeless were instead spent on creating affordable and accessible housing solutions, then we could end homelessness.

                                                                                                                                                           

1City of Colorado Springs and El Paso County Affordable Housing Needs Assessment 2014

2See University of Denver’s Too High a Price report for more information about the cost of criminalizing homelessness.

3For more information about the Homeless Bill of Rights, visit Coloradohomelessbillofrights.org.