In this October 2016 photograph, a brief rally precedes a hearing at downtown Denver's Federal Courthouse in a class-action lawsuit that challenges the city's camping ban. The trial is set to begin in March 2019.

AP Photo/David Zalubowski

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No Place Left to Go: Business Districts Keep Homeless Populations on the Move

In Denver and other cities, can private groups control access to public spaces?

Story by Rob Waters

Published on Feb 18, 2019

EDITOR’S NOTE: Funding for this project was supported by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.

Sophia Lawson will never forget the last conversation she had with Michael Alvarado. She’d known him for six months as an outreach worker for St. Francis Center, a homeless service agency in Denver, where Lawson spent her days walking, handing out socks and toothpaste as she built relationships and tried to help people get off the streets. One evening in October 2015 as she drove home from work, she passed a place where “community members,” as she respectfully calls them, often sleep together in tents. Spotting Alvarado, she pulled over to talk.

Alvarado asked if she’d get him some blankets. He said he was planning to find a secluded place to sleep because he had an appointment the next morning with Denver Human Services. “I have to get a good night’s sleep and the cops are going to be bothering us all night here,” she remembers him saying.

At the time, Denver police were actively enforcing the so-called urban camping ban, a 2012 ordinance that bars people from camping on public property. The City Council had passed the ban at the urging of the Downtown Denver Partnership, a business association that manages the Downtown Business Improvement District (BID) and helped fund Lawson’s position. (A class-action lawsuit challenging the camping ban goes to trial in March. And later this year activists are hoping to get a “Right to Survive” initiative on the ballot to overturn the ban.)

Lawson gave blankets and hand-warmers to Alvarado and his friend, Jenifer Holcom, and they went off to find a spot to sleep. Shortly after midnight, the two were sleeping in an alley where they were run over by a vehicle, according to a police report. Alvarado, 42, was killed. Holcom suffered minor injuries but was devastated by her partner’s death. The hit-and-run driver was never apprehended.

Lawson chokes up as she relates this story over the phone from New Orleans, where she moved a few months ago. She goes on to recount another, about the morning a frantic woman banged on her office door at 7 am. She told Lawson that the previous night, she’d been staying with a group of people on Broadway and was awakened four times by officers shining bright lights. Each time, she said, the group relocated. Finally, she went to a secluded place to sleep. She woke up being raped.

Lawson blames the camping ban for these tragedies, which she views as the extreme consequences of a policy that forces people to leave the safety of groups. For her, the ban has also had an everyday impact: It dispersed her clients, hampering her ability to help them. “People I had spent years building a relationship with were getting swept and I couldn’t find them,” she told me.

Along Arkins Court Road, about a mile from Denver's Coors Field, an encampment of people experiencing homelessness was broken up by police, an outgrowth of  the “urban camping” ban passed by the city council in 2012. (Photo by Rob Waters)

About 5,000 people are homeless in the greater Denver area, according to the last official count, made in 2017. According to Theresa Marchetta, director of strategic communications for Denver Mayor Michael B. Hancock, the city spends roughly $50 million a year on services for people experiencing homelessness, and the city’s shelters can accommodate as many as 2,000 people per night. Last summer, the city opened 100 units of supportive housing for people who have been homeless for many years and are major users of services, funded by private investors to a social impact bond.

Despite these efforts, Denver and many western cities have struggled to reduce their populations of people experiencing homelessness. Homelessness has become a flashpoint of urban life, sparking angry battles over conflicting rights: the right of poor and homeless people to make use of public spaces versus the right of businesses, customers and tourists to be insulated from people sleeping, panhandling and using drugs on the streets — and from the syringes, trash and human waste some of them leave in their wake.

Three years after the little-known death of Michael Alvarado, I visited Denver to report on the conflict bubbling up in many cities, between homeless advocates and business improvement districts. At its core, it’s a debate about the degree of influence that private interests, as represented by BIDs, should exercise over the management of public space. A provocative report last year from the Policy Advocacy Clinic of the University of California, Berkeley School of Law contends that BIDs, now operating in 200 California cities, use their influence to “exclude homeless people from public spaces in their districts through policy advocacy and policing practices.”

Who Benefits from the Camping Ban?

Supporters of the Denver camping ban say it’s justified. They argue that encampments act as vectors for disease, facilitate drug use, and serve as a cover for drug dealing, violence and gang activity. The camps cause other hazards too, as suggested by recent calls to the Denver Fire Department to put out smoldering fires at one large encampment where propane tanks were present. And, they say, the presence of homeless people sleeping or lying in business zones — such as Denver’s 16th Street Mall, a major pedestrian thoroughfare and retail hub at the center of the Downtown BID — can make shoppers and tourists feel unsafe.

“We believe our public spaces should be safe, welcoming and inclusive for all,” says Tami Door, chief executive officer of the Downtown Denver Partnership. “We do not believe that large encampments create the right type of environment for all.”

Door argues that many people sleeping on the streets are mentally ill and need stable housing with mental health services. The Partnership supported a measure approved by voters in November to add one-quarter percent to the local sales tax to fund mental health and addiction services. She also says that within the camps, vulnerable people are often preyed upon and “those that most need services aren’t getting the access they need. So we’ve funded outreach workers to reach into some of those environments to pull people into services.”

Lawson was one of those outreach workers. But she says when she publicly criticized the camping ban — in interviews with reporters and testimony before the city council and state legislature — she got a warning from her supervisor at St. Francis Center.

“I was severely reprimanded and told I didn’t fit the culture and that if I wanted to step out of my position again I should get another job,” Lawson says. She quit, went to work for a few months at another agency, and then decamped for New Orleans, where she now works with children involved in the criminal justice system.

In the Cold, on the Street and on the Move

On the day I arrived in Denver, at the start of a November cold spell, enforcement of the camping ban was in full swing. That morning, a group of people sleeping in 14 tents on Arkins Court Road, a mile from Coors Field, were awakened around 6 a.m. by a police officer — “a nice one, not a dick,” according to one camper. The group had spent a few days camped outside a large fenced-off lot that is slated to become the next piece of Denargo Market, one of many new multi-use projects that are transforming at breakneck speed this once-industrial section of Denver along the banks of the South Platte River.

Before noon, the tents were down and the dispirited group was clustered with their shopping carts, bicycles, mattresses and piles of clothing. A 35-year-old woman, who gave her name as Ikemish and said she was a longtime Denver resident, was trying to plot her next move. In one way she was lucky: It was her day off, so she didn’t have to race to Corafaye’s, the soul-food restaurant where she works as a cook.

She had no idea where she would sleep that night, but one place she wouldn’t go is a city shelter. “It’s worse than being out here,” she said. “People will steal from you, and try to sexually assault you if you’re a woman.”

Another displaced camper, Jordan Cooper, 24, said the shelters won’t admit her two service dogs, who help her cope with the aftermath of trauma. She’s been on the street for nearly two years, she said, since leaving an abusive relationship and losing her home and job in the process. Before coming to Arkins Court, she spent two months at an encampment of 200 people near the Denver Rescue Mission — until it, too, was disbanded by a police sweep. Being in a group with other friends had helped her feel protected and safe.

“Everyone here is my family,” she said, sitting down on the sidewalk to hug her two dogs. “Without some of these people, I would not have made it the last two years. If we’re not allowed to be here, we got nowhere else to go.”

The Origins and Scope of BIDs

In the battle to define and manage public urban spaces, and to control the activities of people experiencing homelessness, few interest groups are more influential — or less known to the general public — than the rapidly growing industry of business improvement districts.

The first business improvement district was formed in a section of West Toronto, Canada, in 1970, followed four years later by the first U.S. BID, the Downtown Development District of New Orleans. The number of BIDs increased steadily in ensuing years, in an effort to revitalize downtowns that had been hollowed out by the flight of middle-class people, businesses and investment to the suburbs.

Jordan Cooper, 24, pictured here at the Arkins Court Road encampment, has been living on the streets for almost two years. She stays with her service dogs, even though shelters won’t admit them together, because they “keep away men they know aren’t good. They somehow feel what I’ve been through.” (Photo by Rob Waters)

Established under laws that vary from state to state, BIDs (and a host of entities with similar names and functions) are a unique blend of private and public. They are started and governed by property owners, and sometimes businesses, in a defined geographic area who agree to pay assessments. The local city or county council must approve each BID, and local tax collectors generally collect the assessments on the BID’s behalf. In many places, including San Francisco and Denver, state and local governments also pay assessments to BIDs for buildings or property they own. And that, says Paul Boden of the Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP), can be a conflict of interest, giving government property owners a vote in whether or not to create a BID, which can then turn around and lobby the city or state. WRAP, a network of homeless rights groups, organized multi-city demonstrations against BIDs last year.

BIDs use this assessment revenue to provide services that are typically the province of local government: They hire street cleaners, security officers, off-duty cops and sometimes social workers. They manage public parks and plazas, promote events, conduct marketing campaigns, and work to promote business, attract retail shoppers and enhance property values within the zone.

The public faces of most BIDs are the uniformed, unarmed representatives known as ambassadors, who give directions to tourists, monitor problems and deal with what BIDs refer to as “quality of life” issues — interacting with destitute, mentally ill or inebriated people, many of them homeless. Most BID ambassadors work for wages at or slightly above local minimum wage, and they often are drawn from the ranks of the homeless or other disadvantaged groups.

Advocacy and Lobbying Are Big BID-ness

BIDs also lobby. In San Francisco, the Union Square Business Improvement District was a key backer of a 2010 ballot measure approved by San Francisco voters that bars people from sitting or lying on public sidewalks during the day.

In Seattle, after the city council voted unanimously in May 2018 to levy a $275-per-employee tax on big businesses to fund housing and services for homeless people, the Downtown Seattle Association fought back. It led a business coalition that criticized the council and gathered signatures to put a repeal measure on the local ballot. “We like jobs; we don’t want to tax them,” Jon Scholes, the association’s CEO told me. Under intense pressure, the council caved and repealed the tax before it went into effect.

In 2015 and 2016, the California Downtown Association, an alliance of improvement districts, mobilized members to oppose a “Right to Rest Act” in the Legislature that would have prevented cities from passing restrictions on sleeping or lying on the street. A lobbyist hired by the Downtown Sacramento Partnership, a 66-block BID, led the effort to defeat the measures.

“This is a great example of the potential influence CDA has,” Emilie Cameron, the partnership’s director of policy and communications, told members of the California Downtown Association in a 2015 email. “We have a unique constituency and potentially a very strong voice that can sway legislators on critical issues.” The email was reprinted in the Berkeley Law report.

Inside the annual BID Conference in San Antonio

BIDs have become a ubiquitous presence in North American cities, large and small. Together, 2,000 BIDs in the U.S. and 500 in Canada employ about 100,000 people and have combined budgets of about $5 billion, according to David Downey, president and CEO of the International Downtown Association (IDA), the trade association for the BID industry. Another 1,500 operate in Europe and other countries.

A growing industry of consultants, product vendors and technology providers has sprouted around BIDs. They come together every year for the IDA’s annual conference. In October 2018, they met at the San Antonio Marriott Rivercenter, where ambassadors for Centro San Antonio, clad in mustard-colored shirts and straw hats, fanned out and provided directions to the 850 people in attendance.

Workshops offered tips on marketing, branding, and how to monetize events. The meeting also included discussions on the role of BIDs in addressing social issues with sessions on “Downtown’s Role in Achieving Equity and Mitigating Gentrification” and “Social Equity, Inclusion and the Urban Renaissance.”

The gentrification session surfaced lively differences. Larisa Ortiz is the former director of the Local Initiative Support Corporation’s (LISC) national commercial revitalization program, who now runs a Queens-based consulting firm that advises retailers. She said “neighborhood change” can be a good thing. “I don’t like the word ‘gentrification.’ A lot of us have waited years to see the explosive growth now taking place,” she told the group.

“We want to gentrify,” said a man from Manchester, England, because “we need people who can pay taxes” to compensate for government funding cuts.

Others were worried. When businesses on the east side of Vancouver formed a BID 18 years ago, the neighborhood had a large immigrant and Native Indian population, and was struggling with crime, prostitution and unemployment, said Patricia Barnes, executive director of the Hastings North Business Improvement Association. Now, she said, it’s full of hipsters, makers, good restaurants and $1-million houses. “Displacement isn’t a fear, it’s a reality,” she said. She’s joined every task force and committee she can, looking for policy levers that can slow displacement and help low-income people and businesses remain. Yet, she said, “people who have known me for 18 years accuse me of gentrification.”

Representatives of BIDs in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Irvine, California, said they’re trying to use planning and zoning policy to protect communities threatened by displacement. Christian Martin, executive director of the Lower Polk Community Benefit District — an area of San Francisco where “million dollar condos” are next to “feces and needles” on the street — has the same goal.

Martin has an “enlightened board” that supports his efforts to “mitigate some of the more sinister outcomes of rapid growth” and “keep the BID from being labeled as foot soldiers of gentrification.” Knowing that low-income renters who get evicted often become homeless, the district started a tenant-landlord mediation program in late 2017 that has helped 87 tenants settle disputes with their landlords. Nearly all have stayed in their apartments, Martin said.

He also has worked to address another problem: “The most seriously mentally ill people are in my district, and public defecation comes with that,” he said. Two years ago, he helped bring portable toilets to the alleys for the use of local homeless people. Now his organization is staffing and cleaning a permanent public toilet nearby and provides places to dispose of needles and dog waste. These efforts resulted in a 34 percent drop in calls about human waste, Martin said.

The 11 tiny homes in Beloved Community Village offer housing for up to 22 homeless people and demonstrate how small structures can offer housing with dignity. (Photo by Rob Waters)

A Level of Service That Cities Can’t, or Won’t, Provide

On the floor of the conference exhibit hall, makers of urban toilets, graffiti removal products, security bollards (for protecting storefronts or blocking alleys), electronic kiosks (for promoting businesses and displaying information) and autonomous vehicles (for moving visitors) promoted their wares. So did representatives of the two biggest BID contractors — Block by Block and StreetPlus.

Block by Block, based in Louisville, provides street cleaners, ambassadors and security officers to 112 business districts. “We just keep growing,” said Blair McBride, the company’s president. Their work is diversifying too: In 2017, the company inked a $4.1-million contract with the Metro Boston Transit Authority for 150 ambassadors to work in the city’s metro system, providing assistance to riders. Boston’s downtown BID has another 40 or 50 Block by Block ambassadors.

Why the growth? “Business and property owners are just not seeing the return on investment with the city taxes they’re paying and they want enhanced services,” said Steve Hillard, president of StreetPlus, which contracts with 72 BIDs, including 47 in New York City. “They want the trash removed timely, they want people to do graffiti removal quickly.”

Both companies have developed smartphone apps that allow BID representatives to track things such as graffiti location, pedestrians assisted, and instances of public urination. Block by Block’s SMART system includes a “Persons of Interest (POI) database” that can create entries for “panhandler, street performer, vendor, homeless individual,” according to a marketing brochure for the system. “Whether at a computer or using the app in the field, ambassadors can record the individual interactions they have with POIs in the SMART System database.”

Homelessness has become a flashpoint of urban life, sparking angry battles over conflicting rights — the right of poor and homeless people to make use of public spaces versus the right of businesses, customers and tourists to be insulated from people sleeping, panhandling and using drugs on the streets.

Ambassadors don’t include personal information such as birth dates or Social Security numbers, and don’t share data with local officials, including police officers, Hillard and McBride both said. “We don’t share, and no one’s ever asked us,” Hillard told me.

The functions performed by ambassadors depend on whom they’re interacting with. With some people, Hillard says, their roles are to “give directions, provide assistance, and check on merchants and downtown workers.”

With others, the ambassadors walk a line between enforcement and offering help. They “look for quality-of-life violations and talk to people to get them to comply,” Hillard says. “Our role is to engage, develop relationships and advise. We don’t do any enforcement. If an assault or crime occurs in our presence, we’ll call police. People know who we are; we treat them with respect. We have a passion for what their plight might be. We make sure we know what they need and where to get it, and that they’re compliant — they can’t block sidewalks during certain hours.”

And if they refuse to comply? “We say come on, please do it for us,” said Hillard. “We walk away and come back. We go with a kindness approach rather than a hard-hand approach. And more times than not, they comply.”

“We’ll approach them and remind them there is a sit-lie ordinance and leave it at that,” said McBride. “If someone appears to be breaking the law, we call the police.”

When Displacement Becomes Violent Harassment

Despite this official policy, there have been numerous allegations of BID ambassadors assaulting and humiliating homeless people. One-quarter of the people experiencing homelessness in San Francisco, Sacramento, and Chico who were surveyed by law students for the Berkeley Law report said they’d been hassled by BID ambassadors. In 2017, the City of Los Angeles settled for almost $500,000 a lawsuit that accused the city of collaborating with security officers for the Downtown Industrial BID to seize the property of homeless people on Skid Row.

In 2015, a Block by Block employee working as an ambassador for the Downtown Berkeley BID repeatedly punched an argumentative homeless man in an alleyway in Berkeley, California. The scene, captured on video and posted to YouTube, led to the firing of the ambassador and suspension of his partner. The Downtown Berkeley BID and McBride issued apologies, with McBride calling the ambassador’s actions “intolerable.”

In August 2017, two Block by Block ambassadors in the Boston metro system shoved a homeless man, who was blind and using a cane, when he tried to go through a security gate without a pass, then threw the cane out of his reach. The man told a local TV reporter he experienced “a lot of humiliation, a lot of disrespect,” during the incident. Both ambassadors were fired.

The Berkeley report, released just weeks before the IDA meeting in San Antonio, was denounced as biased by several BID representatives. “It made it sound like we’re the Gestapo, and that’s not the case,” McBride said. He said negative incidents mentioned in occasional news stories are anomalies and are far outnumbered by “the literally thousands of positive interactions” that regularly occur between BID ambassadors and the public.

He sent me some recent correspondence from a French visitor to Minneapolis who got lost looking for a Bob Dylan mural and “came across Glen, one of your ambassadors. What a stroke of luck! He went out of his way to take me to the mural.” McBride also forwarded a local story about Duluth ambassadors giving out hand warmers to homeless people during the cold spell of late January.

The Arc of “Urban Renewal” Bends Toward Displacement

Today’s conflicts between homeless activists and BIDs have their roots in “slum clearance” efforts of the 1950s and 1960s that razed huge chunks of city neighborhoods and displaced hundreds of thousands of residents, mostly low-income people of color. Brian Page, an associate professor of geography and environmental sciences at the University of Colorado, Denver, studied the history of redevelopment in Denver. In a 2016 article in the journal Urban Geography, he wrote that Downtown Denver Inc. — which still serves as the advocacy arm of the Downtown Denver Partnership — began making the case for the redevelopment of downtown Denver as early as 1955.

In 1967, Page wrote, the governmental agency Denver Urban Renewal Authority (DURA), with a governing board “dominated by … downtown-based financial, commercial, and real-estate interests,” won voter approval of a plan “to transform the dilapidated district into an attractive area … while simultaneously eliminating Denver’s notorious skid row.” Buildings in a 26-block area of downtown were demolished, including low-cost hotels, flophouses and apartments that housed some 1,600 low-income residents.

Attention then shifted to the Auraria district, an industrial area adjacent to downtown that was home to a large Latino population. Local and state agencies wanted to build a new multi-college campus there; it is today the home of CU Denver and two other schools. The justification: the area was “blighted” — a term Page said was used to connote “minority-filled urban space that was poor and deteriorating” and a dangerous “source of vice, crime and disease.”

Page referenced a 1954 city report that used terms similar to the way homeless encampments are described today, saying that while these areas of downtown “contained just 10 percent of Denver’s population, they were the source of 50 percent of crime, 70 percent of fire calls, 80 percent of juvenile delinquency, 80 percent of narcotic cases, 50 percent of Denver General Hospital cases, 50 percent of families receiving welfare assistance, 50 percent of Visiting Nurse Service calls, and 20 percent of Community Chest expenditures.”

This early phase of redevelopment in Denver, largely funded by federal grants, booted low-income people out of their homes, eliminated the affordable housing they lived in, and cleared the land for purchase — on the cheap — by developers. Since 1989, DURA has used a different strategy, providing favorable financing to developers, who built hotels, downtown shopping malls and mixed-income housing projects. These, in turn, pushed up property values and housing costs.

Fathima Dickerson's family has operated Welton Street Cafe, in the Five Points neighborhood, for more than 20 years. In that time she's seen many African-American residents move to the suburbs, driven out by higher housing costs. (Photo by Rob Waters)

The primary tool used by redevelopment agencies such as DURA is tax-increment financing (TIF). It provides financing to developers they can use to build in “blighted” areas. Then, as development causes property values and taxes to rise, the DURA can use the increment — the difference between pre- and post-development tax levels — to either reimburse certain costs of the project or make debt service on DURA-issued bonds.

This post-1990s redevelopment has dramatically changed Denver, contributing to gentrification and the rise of homelessness, says Tony Robinson, an associate professor of political science at the University of Colorado, Denver. “The mission of any downtown business partnership or district is to enhance the business climate and drive up business activity,” Robinson told me. “The whole goal is to increase retail values — tourism, shopping and business — and drive up property values.” One result, he says, is that much of Denver “is gentrifying like crazy, as fast as can be.”

Tracy Huggins, DURA’s executive director, says her agency and business improvement districts don’t bear sole responsibility for displacement. “While BIDs have historically played a role in supporting urban development, they cannot be solely blamed for gentrification,” she said in an email.

“The DURA of the 60s and 70s was very different than DURA today,” she added. “We have learned from the past and approach projects more thoughtfully.” Today, the agency also manages housing rehabilitation programs that aim to “preserve neighborhoods by assisting residents to remain in their homes” through low-interest loans to low- and moderate-income residents.

The “RiNo” in the Five Points Room

Gentrification is especially evident in the Five Points neighborhood. For decades, Five Points was the cultural and commercial center of Denver’s African-American community and one of the only parts of the city where African Americans could purchase or rent housing until the 1960s. From 1960 to 1980, the black population of the neighborhood hovered around 40 percent, with the highest concentration living on or around Welton Street, where black businesses thrived and most buildings were black-owned. By 2016, according to the U.S. Census, fewer than 13 percent of area residents were black.

Today, says Fathima Dickerson, black patrons who come to her family’s Welton Street Cafe, a 20-year-old soul food restaurant, drive in from the suburbs. “The people who used to patronize the businesses, they’re not down here. They can’t afford housing,” she tells me. Some were forced out; others chose to move because they could afford to buy suburban homes, and were no longer prevented from doing so by racist real-estate policies.

A couple of miles from the Welton corridor, the riverside section of Five Points is transforming, with a new name — River North, or RiNo — popularized by the RiNo Art District. It was established in 2005 by a pioneering group of artists, mostly white, who had set up studios in the old foundries, smelters and warehouses that once dotted the area. At the time, artists were getting pushed out of the area as architects and other professionals purchased and converted industrial buildings.

Tracy Weil, a mustachioed painter whose work has the brightly colored palette of Matisse, offered a tour of the area. Twenty years ago, he was a waiter who couldn’t afford a loft in LoDo; today he has a riverfront home and studio, is interim president of the RiNo Art District and is on the board of a related BID. This district has pushed for zoning changes and arts-oriented development plans with the broad goal of branding the neighborhood as the place “where art is made,” and enabling artists to remain.

The area is booming, with new apartment buildings, hip retail complexes — such as the combination food court/gallery where the RiNo Art District has its office — and plans for a riverfront promenade. Some of the artists who used to work in the area have cashed in, Weil said, selling properties for huge profits.

Denver homelessness activist Ben Dunning stands in front of a fence that blocks off sections of Skyline Park, in downtown Denver. Dunning says the use of the fences, as well as the removal of benches where people used to sit, are a form of “urban design that tries to make places unfriendly to poor people who want to hang out.” (Photo by Rob Waters)

He points out a brick warehouse that will be renovated to house artists’ studios, a public library branch, and a food incubator, where people operating small restaurants or food trucks can prepare food, providing employment and start-up opportunities for immigrants and other low-income residents. Another building will be a performing arts center with drop-in arts programs for kids.

Weil has become concerned about gentrification. He recently read an article in the Los Angeles Times “about artists as gentrifiers. When I read that, I went, ‘Huh,’” he said. “That was never my intention. My intention was to build a community of people that collaborate so all their ships could rise together and sell more paintings.”

He was appalled by the “horrible” insensitivity of Ink Cafe on nearby Larimer Street, whose owners posted a sign that led to angry protests. “Nothing says gentrification like being able to order a cortado,” the sign said on one side. “Happily gentrifying the neighborhood since 2014,” it said on the other.

Weil says the RiNo Art District is trying to address the housing crisis by pushing for greater density and more affordable housing. It supported the creation of a small village of 13 tiny homes, wood-frame structures that each house one or two formerly homeless people. It’s a nice proof of concept, but a drop in the bucket for a city with an estimated 5,000 homeless people.

Where to Sit on the 16th Street Mall?

For my final tour, I went down to the 16th Street Mall, the city’s principal commercial artery and the turf of the Downtown Denver Partnership. Its downtown BID helps manage the mall at the center of its 120-block improvement district. Lined with chain stores and restaurants, this is contested territory in the fight between downtown interests and homeless activists. A city ordinance also makes it explicitly unlawful for anyone to “knowingly sit or lie down in the Downtown Denver Business Improvement District.”

Ben Dunning, a member of Denver Homeless Out Loud, an advocacy group, has agreed to show me around. On a side street off the mall, he points out a small loading dock, set back from the street and covered from above, where he used to sleep. “When it was rainy or windy this was awesome,” he tells me.

We walk to the mall and a BID security officer dressed in dark blue passes by, entering something into his smartphone. Dunning points out design features designed to limit access to homeless people. Accordion gates stretch in front of alleyways that intersect 16th Street, deterring people from entering to rest or sleep. On the mall’s median strip, benches and seats have been removed, leaving people with few places to sit or hang out.

Along Arapahoe Street, fences have been up for months to keep people out of parts of Skyline Park, a heavily used urban plaza. Dunning says they target the homeless; the city says needles and human waste left in the area make it hazardous. Railings restrict access to space in front of many business and restaurants along 16th street; Dunning says they’re there to keep people from sitting on the sidewalk or leaning against the wall of buildings.

This strategy, at least along the mall, seems fairly effective: For a dozen or so blocks, there are no tents, no people lying or sitting on the ground. A few street musicians — “buskers,” Dunning quaintly call them — perform along the mall, but not many. A woman in a heavy coat and rain pants sits in a wire mesh chair with her head down on a chess table. For a couple of minutes, at least, she sleeps.

Rob Waters writes about health, science and urban issues from his base in Oakland, California. He contributes to Kaiser Health News, STAT and the California Health Care Foundation. He covered biotechnology for Bloomberg News and his articles have appeared in Mother Jones, BusinessWeek, San Francisco magazine, the Los Angeles Times and many other publications.