As a leading Denver business attorney, we’ve noticed the pressing issue of homelessness in the city. Likely related to the state’s astounding property value increases and increased population, the streets, parks, and lots in the metro area have been accumulating homeless people living in tents and campers. While these unfortunate individuals should be pitied and helped, not demonized, it is nevertheless true that they are having strong negative effects on local area businesses.
What issues are businesses facing as a result of homelessness?
Presumably, most of the homeless individuals most of the time are not causing a disturbance. The simple acts of going about the normal actions of life, though, lead to problems. Meals can lead to litter from wrappers or packages. Some individuals, having nowhere else to go, may relieve themselves in public. The proximity of encampments causes stress and fear among employees and business owners who don’t know what mental state the individuals are in. Their concerns are not entirely unfounded, as definitely concrete problems being reported. The Denverite reports that employees complain about having to “jump over feces and people lying on the sidewalk” on their morning jogs and then having people threaten them and steal tips from the counter at work. Perhaps drawn by the homeless population, 9News reports business owners witnessing increased amounts of drug dealing, prostitution, and other illegal activities. Denver KDVR reports that about 130 fires occurred in Denver in 2023 in and around the areas of tent encampments.
Businesses open to the public are rightfully more concerned about the possibility of these kinds of risks because they arguably face greater potential liability than other property owners. There is a Premises Liability law in Colorado that allows customers, guests, or even trespassers to sue property owners for any damages caused under certain conditions. Without going into too much detail, one of the factors in premises liability can be whether the business was aware of a dangerous condition and failed to do anything about it. If a customer is injured by a homeless person, can a plaintiff’s lawyer argue that the business owner is liable for failing to disperse the encampment? It’s a complicated question, but your business probably doesn’t want to be the test case to answer it.
In the face of these problems, some businesses have simply given up. For example, the Triangle Bar, a long-standing LGBTQ business, recently closed for good citing its inability to operate in the shadow of nearby homeless encampments. Restaurants in Union Station and elsewhere in Denver have also reported closing for similar reasons.
What can a business do to address this issue?
There might be no easy solution, but there are some ideas. One is to contact local law enforcement. Whether or not police can do anything, however, probably depends on whether anyone is committing a crime. This can depend on where your business is located and the specific facts of your situation. Obviously, after there has been an altercation such as a fight, fire, theft, or other bad consequence, then there probably has been a crime committed. But, of course, a business does not want to let things get that bad in the first place. Seeking advice from a reputable Denver business attorney can provide valuable insights into your rights as a business owner.
Realize that loitering, without more, may not actually be unlawful. Not every homeless person is dangerous or involved in any illicit activities. Colorado does have an anti-loitering statute, but it has faced constitutional challenges over the years and today basically only applies around schools. For laws regulating people hanging around your business, you may need to look to your county code or municipal ordinances.
The City and County of Denver, for example, prohibits unauthorized camping on private property without consent and does not allow people to reside overnight in a park, parkway, mountain park, or recreational facility other than a designated campsite. Denver also prohibits anyone from knowingly sitting or laying down in a public right of way, but only in a specific area of downtown called the Denver Improvement District. If your business is in these areas, then you may be able to legitimately complain about violations of these laws. Other jurisdictions may have different ordinances or laws, and so you will need to understand those in your particular area.
One law that probably applies anywhere in Colorado is the criminal trespass statute. There are several different kinds of trespass, but the easiest one to utilize as a business owner is third-degree trespass which occurs when someone enters or remains on property without the express or implied permission of the owner. There are practical difficulties in applying such a law as a business owner, of course. Large signs such as “No Trespassing” might alienate customers. Your employees could notify loitering individuals specifically that they need to move along, but this risks putting them in harm’s way if the individual they are addressing happens to be dangerous. It also leads to practical problems in identifying which of the loitering individuals were asked to leave and which were not.
On top of this, it’s not necessarily a sure thing that police will promptly arrive and do anything about the issue even if there is a technical violation of the law. Police resources are limited, and removing homeless that may be causing a potential problem but are not necessarily breaching the peace may not rank high on their priority list. You can see why, as a result, some business owners are turning to expensive private security companies or hiring off-duty police to help. According to some local businesses, these tactics are effective, but expensive.
What your business can do to address this risk probably thus depends on your specific situation, budget, and location. Some businesses may realistically only be able to post notices and warnings to both the homeless and customers and then hope for the best. At a minimum, a business concerned about this issue should contact an experienced Denver business lawyer to help design a strategy. Underhill Law has decades of experience advising Colorado businesses, including restaurants, and may be a good fit for your needs if you need to design a strategy to address Denver’s current challenges.