Unauthorized camping occurs in spots across Centennial

Policies that ban camping vary throughout south metro area, affecting unhoused people

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In Centennial, cases of unauthorized camping — a visible sign of regional homelessness — have occurred along the High Line Canal Trail in the city’s west end. They’ve also popped up along the Arapahoe Road corridor, off Interstate 25, and in or near park areas.

The Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office has made about 245 contacts with people based on Centennial's camping ban since June 2020, according to the sheriff’s office.

Those contacts have stretched across the city, reaching out east to Smoky Hill Road even though Centennial sits far away from most major resources for unhoused people in the Denver metro area.

“I think it is safe to say that the majority of the contacts are telling people to move on,” said Deputy John Bartmann, a spokesperson for the sheriff’s office.

The vast majority of contacts law enforcement officers make at encampments in Centennial don’t result in tickets, according to data provided by Bartmann, which runs through March 11 of this year.

“There have been two tickets and one warning issued,” Bartmann said. “This information comes from our records from when Centennial enacted the camping ban.”

Centennial City Council approved the city’s urban camping ban unanimously in 2019.

Numbers in the most recent annual report by the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative have painted a picture of increasing homelessness in the Denver metro area — a trend that predates the coronavirus pandemic but was likely worsened by it.

Asked whether Centennial has seen an increase in homeless encampments since July 2019, Bartmann said: “Yes, we have seen an increase in homelessness.”

The laws and policies that prohibit camping vary across different cities in the metro area — and they’re also different within Centennial’s own boundaries depending on where a person is.

Where camping is illegal in Centennial

Centennial’s law bans camping on city-owned roads, sidewalks, trails, parks and city buildings or other city property. 

The ban also applies to property overseen by the Southeast Metro Stormwater Authority — often called SEMSWA — which generally manages waterways in Centennial. That includes creeks, streams and other drainage areas. 

Centennial’s municipal code, or city law, defines camping as using public property for “living accommodation,” including, but not limited to, the following activities and circumstances:

• Sleeping or making preparations to sleep, including the lying down of bedding.

• Occupying a shelter out of doors. In the city’s law, "shelter" means any cover or protection from the elements other than clothing, such as a tent, shack, sleeping bag, blankets or other material.

• The presence or use of a campfire, camp stove, or other heating source or cooking device.

• Keeping or storing personal property.

Many park and open space areas in Centennial aren't city property and still operate under their own rules.

Parks, trails and recreation in the Centennial area are mostly overseen by South Suburban Parks and Recreation in the city’s west and central parts, by Arapahoe Park and Recreation District generally east of Parker Road, and by Arapahoe County Open Spaces. The city owns Centennial Center Park and a small number of other spaces.

South Suburban Parks and Recreation’s rules and regulations prohibit camping in all park, trail and open space areas, except when it is approved through a permitting process, according to spokesperson Becky Grubb. 

South Suburban also enforces a park curfew from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m., Grubb said. And waterways on South Suburban property, specifically in Centennial, are managed by SEMSWA, according to Grubb.

Park hours are from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. in the Arapahoe Park and Recreation District, whose waterways are also overseen by SEMSWA.

Other than the rule about hours, “APRD does not have rules against sleeping in the park during the day (or) evening, whether with a tent (or) cover or not,” said Delos Searle, the park district’s interim executive director.

Not all the spaces in the district are owned by Arapahoe Park and Recreation though. Much of the land and parks that Arapahoe Park and Recreation manages are owned by SEMSWA,  Searle said.

Searle added: “I would like to note that APRD has not had an issue with the camping (or) sleeping issue in our parks except for a rare occasion. When an issue does arise, it has been quickly resolved with a courteous conversation.”

Despite its name, the Arapahoe Park and Recreation District is not a part of the Arapahoe County government.

For open spaces managed by Arapahoe County, a resolution approved in 1996 by the county commissioners says it is unlawful to camp or park a trailer or camper for camping purposes in areas that are not specifically designated for camping.

The circumstances back then were different — the measure wasn’t put forth as an explicit camping ban targeted at people experiencing homelessness, said Luc Hatlestad, a county spokesperson.

“People who aren’t experiencing homelessness also go camping, and I want to stress that this is but … a single line in a long and comprehensive resolution designed to clarify everything that was permitted and prohibited in our then-nascent open space areas,” Hatlestad added.

Data shows pockets of camping

Spots along Panama Drive, which winds along the High Line Canal east of Broadway, account for 11 instances of the sheriff’s office checking on camping activity, according to the data. Most of those locations sit within several blocks of Broadway, near the west edge of Centennial.

Several other data entries list the High Line Canal Trail as the spot of a camping check. And eight other camping-check entries mark one address on Broadway right next to the High Line Canal.

About 20 entries list locations along Arapahoe Road — including some for the Arapahoe Road Trailhead at Cherry Creek, not far from Parker Road.

In the southwest part of Centennial, 13 entries sit near Otero Avenue and Newport Court, near what the county’s online map labels as an open space area.

About 30 entries are close to the Dry Creek Road and I-25 interchange.

Asked whether deputies always recommend resources to homeless individuals when making contact under Centennial's camping ban, Bartmann said the sheriff’s office doesn't track that in its data.

“They will generally ask the individuals if they need help, and if they say yes,” then deputies will provide information about services, Bartmann said. “We have several brochures we give.”

Although Centennial City Council approved the city’s camping ban in 2019, the “Camp Check” encoding that officials use to specifically track the contacts law enforcement makes regarding camping was started in 2020, so the sheriff’s office has no way of finding information prior to that, Bartmann said. The data begins in June 2020.

Camping policies vary across cities

Other cities in the south metro area enforce varying policies that may affect people experiencing homelessness outdoors.

An ordinance banning camping in the City of Sheridan was passed in 2012, according to Arlene Sagee, Sheridan city clerk.

The City of Englewood doesn't have a camping ban for public property in general, but the city's parks and open space rules say overnight camping is prohibited in all parks and areas that are designated for park usage. That includes parking vehicles, trailers or campers used for overnight parking. Parks are closed between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m.

“City council has not recently considered a specific camping ban ordinance, and there is not one currently under consideration,” said a statement from Christopher Harguth, Englewood spokesperson. “Whether city council will specifically consider a camping ban ordinance at some point in the future is unknown.”

Littleton has no specific “no-camping code,” but that city enforces certain codes — meaning laws or regulations — to the same effect on public property, city spokesperson Kelli Narde said in a statement.

According to the statement, that includes the following codes: 

• 6-9-1 (D) pertains to the city’s authority to regulate public property regarding “necessary sanitation, health and safety measures,” according to the statement.

• 7-1-11 (B) makes it unlawful for any person “to dump, place, dispose of or allow to accumulate any refuse or garbage on privately owned property, occupied or vacant, or on public property within the City without written permission of the City administration,” the statement said.

• 4-1-5 (I) says, in part, that “Temporary Housing” is prohibited. “Any vehicle, mobile, or other structure used for human shelter which is designed to be transportable and which is not attached to any utilities system … may not be occupied or used for living purposes on public or private property within the city limits,” the statement said.

All Littleton parks close at night, Narde said.

“Almost all parks close at 11 p.m., with a few exceptions like Bega Park, which closes at 8 p.m.,” Narde added.

This year, the Aurora City Council recently passed a camping ban ordinance that was set to take effect April 28.

Aurora's camping ban will apply to unauthorized camping on public property, but it doesn’t mean the city can remove any camp it wants at all times.

The ban also requires the city to have shelter available for people who are staying at camps that would be removed.

According to a city spokesperson, the new camping ordinance outlines that police can write tickets or arrest people if they're camping on public property and the following criteria are met:

• The city has a shelter option available for the person;

• The person has been offered placement in the shelter space;

• And the person has been given a verbal or written order to move and to take their property with them but they refuse to stop camping.

People who experience homelessness sometimes have concerns that lead them to avoid shelters, including worries about safety or being separated from a companion.

Jennifer Stone, a communications manager for the Colorado Municipal League, said the municipal league does not have a list of municipalities that ban camping. But several local governments along the Front Range have such a policy.

Colorado Springs and Boulder also prohibit camping on public property, according to a Centennial city staff report. Parker approved a camping ban in June 2018. Overnight camping on public property is not allowed in the City of Lone Tree, according to the city’s website.

Critics of such policies say camping bans push the unhoused to other places or surrounding cities but don’t address underlying issues regarding homelessness.

Denver in 2012 banned staying in an outdoor place with a tent, sleeping bag or other shelter, a policy that advocates for the homeless have said may be pushing more homeless individuals into the suburbs. In a 2013 survey of 512 homeless people in central Denver by the advocacy group Denver Homeless Out Loud, 20% of respondents said that after the ban they more often sleep in outlying neighborhoods or surrounding cities, according to the survey document.

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