Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman speaks to reporters in Denver about the 2020 election on Wednesday, Oct. 15, 2020. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

While his intentions might have been noble, Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman’s decision to spend time living on the streets recently did not bring him any closer to the truth when it comes to understanding the complex and multifaceted challenges facing our unhoused neighbors. 

To the contrary, the mayor’s week of voluntary poverty appears to have led him to several common but detrimental misconceptions about homelessness.

First, in his Jan. 5 interview with Denver TV station KCNC-CBS4, the mayor asserts that the homeless encampments he visited “are not a product of rental rates [or] housing, … they are a product of a drug culture.” 

This claim that homelessness has nothing to do with a lack of affordable housing simply does not square with widely available data.

Kathleen Van Voorhis

Nationwide, high housing costs and high rent burdens (housing cost as a percentage of income) correlate directly to an increased rate of homelessness. Data last year from the National Low-Income Housing Coalition shows that a worker earning minimum wage in Colorado could reasonably allocate $624 toward rent each month. The average cost of a one-bedroom apartment statewide is $1,103. In Aurora, where I and  Coffman’s other constituents reside, that number is $1,376.

This is to say nothing of the growing eviction crisis in Colorado that has been severely exacerbated by COVID-19. The Colorado Eviction Defense Project published research in September indicating that well over 300,000 Coloradans were at risk of losing their home by the end of last year. 

While the extension of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s eviction moratorium through the end of January is holding many of these evictions at bay, we are on the brink of a large and devastating eviction wave that will affect hundreds of thousands of Coloradans should the moratorium expire.

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Coffman also makes clear in his interview that his experience has led him to believe that homelessness is primarily a result of drug and alcohol abuse and that “people have settled into this sort of lifestyle and decades go on and they’re just not moving on.”

While the notion of self-determination and a well-devised plan to dig oneself out of a tough situation might seem like a reasonable course of action to the mayor (a man of means, a sound mind, good health, and an able body), the path up and out of poverty for many of our unhoused neighbors is just not that simple or straightforward, particularly for those who are battling addiction and mental illness — two fields in which we do not have enough low-cost resources for those in need.

The Addiction Center notes that a staggering one-third of the unhoused battle mental illness, and that mental illness often leads to a concurrent struggle with substances. The center’s study also notes that individuals who suffer with mental illness are more likely to be victims of assault.

Without proper medication and other forms of treatment, many struggling with mental illness have little chance of being able to function day to day, let alone devising a scheme to pull oneself out of a dire situation.

Data from the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative’s annual Point In Time count also bears out the reality that homelessness is an issue of racial inequality in the United States. The 2020 Point In Time report shows Black, Indigenous, and multi-racial people, as well as Pacific Islander and Latinx communities, are disproportionately impacted by homelessness across the region. 

For example, in the city of Aurora, people reporting Black/African-American identity are

over-represented in the unhoused population to the tune of 7.6 times greater than the general population. Mayor Coffman’s reduction of the issue to individual choices fails to account for this blatant structural issue.

Perhaps most troubling is that the mayor’s anecdotal conclusions appear to be influencing his policy positions.

In a follow-up CBS4 story that aired Wednesday, Coffman explained how his experience on the street has led him to consider a public awareness campaign aimed at discouraging people from providing food and other aid to the unhoused, nodding again to the virtues of personal responsibility and self-determination that he believes must be the answer. Providing food and other necessary items, he argues, is only feeding the problem.

Adding to his thoughts on policy changes, Coffman floats the idea that unhoused people should perhaps be required to complete job training or undergo addiction counseling in order to receive human necessities like food and shelter. He does not discuss where the funding for these programs would come from.

As it stands, there are not enough of these services to support those in need. Moreover, putting barriers in the way of basic resources will not help someone struggling with addiction or a mental health condition. It will only drive the poor deeper into a cycle of poverty.

I would implore the mayor to consult experts in organizations who’ve worked on the ground with Aurora’s and greater Denver’s unhoused for decades. And I would call on my fellow residents of Aurora to act with empathy and compassion toward our unhoused neighbors while avoiding the temptation to settle for easy explanations that fail to account for the complexities and nuances of the homelessness crisis.

Kathleen Van Voorhis of Aurora is the director of Housing Justice at the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado, leading efforts to create positive social change around homelessness, housing, food insecurity and migrant rights.

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