This morning I am reminded of the homeless service providers and government agencies that came out against the Right to Survive Ballot Initiative—aka 300—last year. The initiative would have confirmed the human right of people experiencing homelessness to seek shelter and stability, even when that effort looks very different from those of us with white picket fences. At the time, these providers argued that we couldn’t know the unintended consequences of passing the initiative and that we could “do better” than leaving people to shelter in public.
Today, the city and aforementioned service providers are doing their best to provide shelter under extraordinary circumstances, for which they should be commended. Of course, social distancing is impossible in an emergency shelter, so we might rightly expect many individuals to instead find their own shelter, to the best of their ability, in public. And yet, today homeless folks on the streets of Denver are being subjected to police sweeps, their encampments broken up, the “social distance” they had established destroyed by city policy.
The emergency we’re all experiencing is doubly impacting our homeless neighbors but because of the nature of the virus, this impact will be felt by us all.
Small service providers, like the one I work for, focus on relationship, connection, and learning the stories of people who find shelter in public spaces. Because we learn these stories, we know that homeless folks use their agency to the best of their ability to stay safe, to support each other, to work for the health of their community. Because of these relationships, small providers unanimously supported the Right to Survive Ballot Initiative.
It seems to me that one of the unintended consequences of failing to pass 300 is that, now, people’s ability to act responsibly in this crisis has been removed along with their agency. All of us will bear the cost of this failure of imagination.