Stop Criminalizing Homelessness: International Boycott Of Palm Restaurant

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Above photo: Every Friday night, Boycott The Palm protesters ask patrons to dine elsewhere until Palm management reverses their support for the Urban Camping Ban that criminalizes sleeping anywhere in Denver.

A History of Denver’s Urban Camping Ban And Ongoing Efforts To End It

On Saturday, October 19th, an international protest will take place at The Palm restaurant locations to raise awareness of this chain’s support of criminalization of homeless people. In 2012, Denver’s Palm restaurant manager Wendy Klein spoke on behalf of business groups in support of the Urban Camping Ban. The ban made it illegal for people in Denver to sleep with anything covering them, including a blanket, a jacket (if not worn), or a piece of cardboard.

In early 2012 I was a nascent member of the Occupy movement here in Denver, Colorado. My frustration with giant banks crashing our economy and getting rewarded with bail-outs by the American taxpayer had led me to participating in Occupy Denver’s Foreclosure Working Group, now the Colorado Foreclosure Resistance Coalition. The group was a coalition not only of Occupy Denver, but also Move On and the Colorado Progressive Coalition. While combatting foreclosures through protest, lobbying, and promotion of legislation have been our primary focus, like many affinity groups, the members shared a variety of other interests around social justice. One that continues to frequently arise within the group is that of homeless people’s rights.

In March that year, someone alerted our group that City Councilman Albus Brooks was sponsoring an ordinance to make it illegal to sleep with any protection against the elements other than the clothes on one’s back. Brooks had a reputation as being a progressive, and I took up the request to contact him to learn more about the content and intent of this bill. Brooks had introduced the bill in April in the Land Use, Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and the ban was first discussed by Mayor Hancock in October of 2011. I called Brooks’ office and spoke to his secretary, letting her know I was with Occupy Denver and we were interested in meeting with him to discuss the camping ordinance. She informed me both that the bill was likely to be heard in the coming weeks, and that Councilman Brooks was unavailable to meet with members of our group. I shared that given the accelerated time frame Brooks was using to push this bill, if he could not meet with us we would protest his office if he could not make time to have a meeting. Five minutes later we were on his schedule for March 23rd.

In preparation for the meeting I started by looking at Brooks’ website, where I found a link to an article in which he was quoted:

“This is a nightmare,” Brooks said. “Denver is very sympathetic to the homeless issue, especially during this fiscal time. But that’s not the issue. We have predators, sex offenders, folks selling drugs and taking advantage of people and vagrants all pretending to be these homeless folks.”

Brooks recently went to the mall at midnight to see the issue up close. He found about 180 people setting up to sleep overnight. Many were camping in business doorways.

“I am compassionate, but I also understand that sometimes people need to be dealt with,” he said. “If we don’t do something now, we are going to have a worse spring and summer than we have seen for a long time.”

Needless to say, the Councilman’s reputation as a progressive was already very questionable in my mind. In one fell swoop he had associated predators, sex offenders, and people selling drugs with homeless people, though not saying it was homeless people, and his solution was to make it illegal for people who were struggling simply to survive to so much as cover themselves with a blanket. While dismissing the detrimental impact the financial crisis has had on those struggling at the bottom of the economic pyramid, his rhetoric was clearly aimed at painting people living on the street as criminals, a problem to be “dealt with” not with compassion fueled by an understanding of how criminal actions by Wall Street had led to so many more people living on the streets, but by passing a law to force them to the shadows so he and the business community would not have to see them.

A very diverse group of activists attended the meeting at Brooks’ office on the 23rd. It included Roshan, a college student in Denver at the time; Ben, a homeless issues data analyst; Terese, a children’s gymnastics instructor; Billie, a retired Denver city planner; Nicole, a homeless woman from Denver; and myself, an electrical engineer. Brooks began the meeting much the same way he felt we had arranged it: confrontationally. He demanded we respect him and let him share his position, and went on to say that his secretary had felt unsafe and threatened by my phone call. When Brooks’ introductory monologue ended, he did not stop to make introductions. While he was demanding respect, he was himself disrespectful. Ben was the first to respond and shared his disappointment that Brooks had characterized homeless people as needing to work harder and hustle to care for themselves (Brooks had talked about his annual trips to Kenya, where there are no people sleeping on the streets because people there have a culture of hustling to earn their keep).

In the end, Brooks informed us that we could provide all the feedback we wanted, but he was going to pass the ordinance as written and he would not budge, for example, on having the ordinance be city-wide, rather than hearing our request that it instead be limited to downtown areas.

From this first interaction with the Councilman, we were certain he was working closely with the Downtown Denver Partnership (DDP), a group who strongly promoted the ban. Later freedom of information requests showed this suspicion to be true. In the emails contained therein, Downtown Denver Partnership President and CEO, Tami Door, shares with Brooks that a large development company had visited the downtown Denver area and were interested in acquiring property, and that their experiences with the homeless had disappointed them and left them with serious concerns. Brooks responded to Door’s email with his own, exclaiming, “Good lord! We will keep working on this, hopefully this developer buys…..”

Brooks and the committee promoting the ban had to hear from members of the community on both sides of this issue, with an overwhelming majority who spoke out and were present being against it. During the hearing on the ban, Denver Councilman Paul Lopez pointed out the ban was introduced into Council’s Land Use, Transportation & Infrastructure Committee instead of the Health, Safety, Education and Services Committee where it more naturally fit, to assure that it would garner enough positive votes to be sent to the full City Council. The proposed ban would likely not have passed through the Health, Safety, Education and Services Committee where it more appropriately belonged.

Among those who spoke out in favor of the ban was Wendy Klein, a sales manager at the Palm restaurant in Denver, which is itself a member of the Colorado Restaurant Association (CRA). In the linked video, Klein conflates a stabbing that occurred outside the Palm with homeless people, an inaccurate association, as the perpetrator was not homeless. Like Brooks, she sought to associate law breakers with homeless people in an effort to sway public opinion against our homeless neighbors. Homeless advocates are taking many actions in response to the Palm and its associates’ efforts to push through the inhumane Urban Camping Ban.

A best explanation of current Boycott the Palm protest efforts in Denver requires stepping back to well over a year ago, when another restaurant manager and co-owner, Brianna Borin of Snooze a.m. Eatery, also spoke out in support of the Urban Camping Ban at a City Council public hearing. Her appearance occurs at 3:07:15 in the hearing. What she fails to mention is that the Snooze on Larimer Street of which she speaks is located right next door to the Denver Rescue Mission. Ms. Borin’s complaints about the prevalence of homeless individuals sleeping outside her restaurant conveniently leave out the fact that her business chose to purchase a property where a high concentration of Denver’s homeless people congregate to line up for a possible night’s stay in the shelter next door. It should have been no surprise to those who purchased this property that homeless individuals who wait in line from early afternoon until late evening, but still fail to find a place in the shelter for the night, would often end up sleeping in the surrounding neighborhood.

This did not sit well with One Janet Matzen of Occupy Denver. Ms. Borin’s choice to move her business next door to a homeless shelter and then complain about their presence drove Matzen to join Occupy Denver’s Boycott Snooze campaign. Every Sunday morning for a solid year, Matzen and members of Occupy Denver stood outside Snooze and protested the business, asking patrons and passersby to boycott due to the restaurant management’s support of the Urban Camping Ban. They held signs that said, for example, “How Does Class Warfare Taste?”. Snooze’s owner, Jon Schlegel, regularly engaged Matzen asking what he could do to get her to stop protesting, thinking that if he made some efforts to provide some resources or money for homeless people, the protesters might be enticed to go away. Matzen always had one answer for him: reverse your support for the Urban Camping Ban and ask City Council to repeal it. These conversations occurred frequently throughout the year. Near the end of the one year mark, Schlegel began meeting with Matzen and other homeless advocates to negotiate an end to the protest. After several such efforts, Snooze put out a statement urging the repeal of the Urban Camping Ban:

Since we established Snooze in the heart of the 5 Points/Arapahoe Square and the Ballpark Neighborhoods, Snooze has worked to support and help Denver’s homeless community. We have embraced this endeavor by hiring and providing employment; sitting on the board of the Denver Homeless Commission; fundraising; creating a mentoring program through Urban Peak; volunteering and spreading awareness to support the homeless.

When the Urban Camping Ban proposal was presented to us, we believed the ban would provide and allow for more services and support in the form of shelters, mental health and general assistance for our area homeless. We believe that the Urban Camping Ban has not provided these opportunities and should be repealed or amended to more effectively meet the needs of our homeless community. As always, our goal at Snooze is to support and assist any endeavor that strives to improve and better the lives of our homeless community. To that end, we believe that the Urban Camping Ban has not met the needs of Denver’s homeless community and we respectively ask the city of Denver as well as the business community at large to work towards repeal or modification of the Urban Camping Ban and work towards an effective solution for Denver’s business and homeless communities.

After one year of committing every Sunday to letting Snooze’s owners and patrons know it was not OK to try and banish homeless people to make breakfast more palatable, Matzen and other homeless supporters succeeded in showing Schlegel and Borin that the promises of the Urban Camping Ban were largely left unfulfilled. Matzen had dedicated her Sundays for a year to this effort, time she would have loved to spend with her grandson, instead standing outside in even the mile high city’s worst weather, to be sure the message that all people have a right to sleep was heard. Of anyone I’ve met in the Occupy movement, her steadfast conviction and love have made her stand out as a hero I can only hope to emulate.

While the 16th street walking mall was now nearly clear of people sleeping there for the safety the lights and security personnel brought them, many homeless people had simply moved further into the shadows, which included the neighborhood of Snooze’s Larimer location. As predicted by opponents of the ordinance from its inception, the Urban Camping Ban has pushed our homeless community further away from the downtown area where they can find assistance, and made their already impossible lives more difficult. They must choose between a safe place to sleep from which the police are more likely to force them to move, and sleeping where they are at greater risk of crimes against them.

These results are well documented in “The Denver Camping Ban A Report From The Street”. Three members of the group that originally confronted Albus Brooks discussed earlier, including myself, along with another tireless champion for the homeless who built Denver Homeless Out Loud’s (DHOL) website, began meeting to address the impacts of the ban approximately six months after it had passed. At about that time there was a first update on the impacts of the Urban Camping Ban to the Denver City Council. DHOL members thought that perhaps the full impact of the ordinance were not being reported through the City Council’s efforts, and decided to survey homeless people in Denver to assess the impact of the Urban Camping Ban on their lives. The report linked in the beginning of this paragraph was the culmination of surveying 512 self-identified homeless individuals in Denver. The data collection methods and data analysis were overseen by University of Colorado Denver’s chair of the political science department, Tony Robinson. Though DHOL followed a protocol designed to ensure objective data collection, detractors continue to attack the messengers (see DHOL’s response to this editorial here).

Salient results of the survey include:

  1. 37% of survey respondents said they had sometimes chosen not to cover themselves from the elements while sleeping outside, due to the camping ban.
  2. 65% of those who use shelter regularly (both before and after the URBAN CAMPING BAN) find it harder to access shelters since the URBAN CAMPING BAN passed.
  3. 60% of respondents report getting less sleep due to the camping ban.
  4. 59% of survey respondents say that it has become more necessary to avoid the police since the ban was passed. 4% say the police have become more helpful to them.
  5. 53% of all survey respondents say they feel LESS safe in Denver since the ban was passed. Only 6% feel that they feel more safe. 41% haven’t noticed any change in their safety at all.

Two of the stated goals of the URBAN CAMPING BAN were:

  1. Police will be able to offer service alternatives to the homeless and help connect them to healthy alternatives to the street.
  2. The quality of life for homeless people will improve, as they are prompted to move off the streets, move into indoor shelters,  and access needed services.

The survey results show that instead of helping to connect the homeless with healthy alternatives and services, homeless interaction with police was far more likely to lead to being approached while sleeping; being asked to move along; be given a verbal warning; and being checked for arrest warrants. Chart 4 from professor Tony Robinson’s presentation of the data, below, shows how very skewed the police interactions were. The kind of help the police were touted to be able to provide as a result of the ban are shown occurring very infrequently compared to interactions with them that instead makes life harder for Denver’s homeless population.


The other stated goal of the camping ban was:

  1. Improve business climate and appearance of central downtown areas.

There is no doubt this goal has been met. Police interactions with the homeless due to the Urban Camping Ban have focused on the downtown area, per their own data; and, the protocol for handling these interactions puts offering assistance as almost an afterthought (see page 37 of the DHOL report) and comes only after issuing a written warning.

If there was ever any doubt about Matzen’s intentions after Snooze’s owners requested repealing the Urban Camping Ban because of its failure to help the homeless as originally touted by its supporters, it was put to rest on the first Sunday after they released their statement. Matzen and a large group of protesters showed up at Snooze to thank them for choosing to do the right thing, then marched on to the Palm restaurant. Boycott the Palm now occurs every Friday night, with volunteers sharing food and conversation, and protesters standing face to face with patio diners at this swanky steak house just off the 16th street walking mall in Denver. The police presence has been fierce since the beginning, with protesters frequently stopped or arrested for minor infractions. Six policemen are stationed outside the Palm every Friday night from 5:00 to 9:00 p.m. during the protest, receiving free meals from the Palm and conversing with their management regularly. Palm management shuts blinds and curtains on these nights so that patrons inside the restaurant have as little visibility as possible of the protesters.

On the patio, Palm management has paid for their family and friends to have dinner. This group has been a familiar site, frequently engaging protesters in dialogue. On a particularly divisive evening, one of the men sitting in the outside dining area was captured on camera (at minute 1:15) telling a protester, “I’ve got an extra bedroom if you want to come over and stay with us. Of course I’d probably rape you in the ass in the middle of the night.” Such threats and disparagement are common, as are the all too familiar derisive instructions to protesters to get a job, as well as the defense that the Palm contributes to homeless shelters and should not therefore be targeted. I for one do not believe that a business can be forgiven for criminalizing the survival act of sleeping on the streets because it also has helped provide food or a number of beds to those who do so, when such contributions can in no way meet the needs of our homeless community.

The criminalization of the homeless is not unique to Denver, as pointed out in the report, “Homes Not Handcuffs: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities”. Inhumane treatment of the homeless pointed out in the report includes:

  1. Los Angeles, CA: The city was found in 2007 to be spending $6 million annually on police officers to crack down on the homeless in the Skid Row area, while budgeting only $5.7 million for homeless services.
  2. St. Petersburg, FL: Since 2007 , St. Petersburg passed six new ordinances targeting the homeless.  The report states, “In January 2007, the Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender announced that he would no longer represent indigent people arrested for violating municipal ordinances to protest what he called excessive arrests of homeless individuals by the City of St. Petersburg.”
  3. Orlando, FL: “In 2006, the Orlando City Council passed a law that prohibited groups sharing food with 25 or more people in downtown parks covered under the ordinance from doing so more than twice a year… A federal district court found the law unconstitutional; however, the City of Orlando has appealed the decision.”

Such treatment continues since the report, with ordinances passed so heinous that the police have refused to enforce them. The report points out many concerns with such criminalization, including, “When a city enforces a law that imposes criminal penalties on a homeless person for engaging in necessary life activities such as sleeping in public, such a law could violate that person’s Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment if the person has nowhere else to perform the activity.” The report goes on to share that the cost of criminalization is higher than that of helping, such as with the cost of providing shelter vs. jailing individuals:

According to the survey results, jail costs were two to three times higher than permanent supportive housing or shelter costs. While advocates have had anecdotal evidence for years that suggested it is actually more costly to arrest and convict homeless individuals of misdemeanors relating to their homelessness than it is to provide housing for them, a number of service providers have conducted cost studies that have confirmed that housing is not only the more humane option but also more economical.

Pushing Back

While Denver Homeless Out Loud, Faith Groups, and even businesses that formerly supported the Urban Camping Ban are pressuring City Council members to address the fundamental problems the ordinance simply swept under the rug, protesters continue their efforts to motivate businesses that were part of the Colorado Restaurant Association and Downtown Denver Partnership when those groups supported its passage to join in urging repeal of the ban. Such businesses clearly influenced passage of the ban, and it is justifiable to believe they can learn from the facts on the ground that Denver’s homeless have been greatly negatively impacted and the ban should be eliminated.

Nothing says think strongly about your actions to business managers as seeing their bottom line affected. Boycott the Palm protests have shut down patio dining during the summer months there, consistently losing the restaurant money on one of the busiest nights of the week. Surprise protests on Saturday nights have been added, with the benefit of no police presence and more opportunity to interact with restaurant goers and people staying at the hotel it is associated with. Such interactions are often very respectful and informative for patrons who otherwise may have no idea of the Urban Camping Ban or the business’ role in its passage. In one case, people staying at the hotel placed flyers from the protesters, which provide information about the ordinance, inside the hotel and, eight hours later, were threatened with being thrown out by hotel security. Those individuals are now helping to organize an international day of protest, during which protesters across the U.S. and in London will show up at Palm restaurants in support of the Denver action. Customers at all these locations will be informed how the chain is supporting the criminalization of homelessness, and asked to boycott them until the leadership at the Palm restaurant organization choose to support meaningful, beneficial change to deal with homeless issues, rather than pushing the criminalization of the survival act of sleeping.

On Saturday, October 19th, please join us at these confirmed Palm locations from 5:00 to 9:00 p.m local time:

Denver, CO: Near the corner of 17th and Arapahoe. The protest occurs adjacent to Skyline Park.

London, England: 1-3 Pont Street Belgravia

New York City, NY: 837 Second Ave

Washington D.C.: 1225 19th St NW

Prior to the protest, we will contact the Palm management in New York to request they work with their Denver branch to do the right thing and request the city of Denver repeal the Urban Camping Ban, and to encourage other Downtown Denver Partnership and Colorado Restaurant Association members to do the same. Should they honor this request, we will show up on October 19th to praise them for supporting our homeless brothers and sisters.