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Housing

Aurora is getting closer to passing an urban camping ban. But will there be enough shelter space for displaced people?

Councilmembers supporting the rule say allowing people to live on the streets is inhumane. Others call the ordinance cruel and ineffective. It gets a final vote on March 28.

Seventeen teams of city workers and employees from local nonprofits in the Denver metro area visited highway overpasses, alleys, public parks, transit terminals, parking lots, and other locations to count houseless individuals in late January 2022. The “point-in-time” count can help inform human service organizations and government programs of origins of local homelessness and how to better serve affected individuals. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

If a new camping ban passes in Aurora later this month, people living outdoors may be removed from the sidewalks and parks where they live, as soon as April 30.

Allowing them to continue to live on the streets is inhumane, said some members of the city council who voted in favor of an ordinance making it illegal to camp on public or private property without authorization.

The unauthorized-camping ordinance passed its second reading on a 6-5 vote Monday night and is likely to pass its final reading on March 28. The ordinance would take effect about 30 days later.

Councilors who supported the camping ban, which was proposed by Mayor Mike Coffman, said residents and local businesses have complained about sanitation and public safety issues related to encampments in the city. 

But advocates for the almost 600 people who split time between outdoor tents and the 200 to 250 shelter beds available in Aurora called the proposed camping ban cruel and ineffective and said the ordinance would not solve homelessness. The city, they said, should instead focus on providing permanent housing options to create real solutions.

“I’m going to sound like a broken record, but I just want to reiterate that you’re going to still see people camping all over the place, because we’re not finding them housing,” Councilmember Juan Marcano said during the Monday meeting. “This is going to institutionalize state violence, basically, against folks in our city who are experiencing homelessness, and we need to implement real solutions, such as permanent supportive housing.”

Coffman declined an interview before the Monday night meeting, but in an emailed response to written questions, he said people living in encampments should have an alternative shelter option that is safe, has sanitation and offers other services to help them find a job and permanent housing.

There are just under 600 people who are homeless in Aurora, according to data collected in January during the point-in-time survey, when city workers and volunteers count the number of people who are homeless on a given night each year. Many encampments in Aurora are concentrated along Chambers Road, East Iliff Avenue, East Mississippi Avenue and near Interstate 225 onramps and underpasses.

Aurora has one overnight shelter with 150 beds. A few Safe Outdoor Spaces sites, with tents and pallet shelters, are set up in the city and have 90 beds, but can accommodate up to 120 people, said Jessica Prosser, the city’s director of housing and community services.

“And typically, those are, for the most part, full,” she said.

If passed, the new camping ban would require city workers to give 72 hours notice before a camp is removed and it would call for shelter beds to be available before a camp is shut down.

However, there’s no promise that those shelter beds will become available. 

If the ordinance passes, Prosser’s office will work on finding additional shelter beds. The city currently activates its day resource center, and uses hotel and motel vouchers to increase shelter beds during cold weather. 

Coffman, who was under intense public scrutiny last year after he told a TV station that he had posed as a homeless person, lived in encampments for seven days and that he believed addiction treatment or job training should be required for people accessing shelter services, introduced the first version of his urban camping ban last summer, but it failed in August on a 5-5 vote. His newer proposal passed on first reading on Feb. 28 in a 6-5 vote after Coffman broke the now right-leaning council’s tie.

At that February meeting, Councilmember Crystal Murillo asked city staff to draft an amendment to address how important personal items, such as cell phones and identification cards, would be handled by the city when a camp is removed. That amendment passed at the Monday night meeting. At the February meeting, the council passed an amendment offered by Murillo instructing the city manager to provide an annual report to the council on the effectiveness of the urban camping ban and an accounting of all city staff’s time and resources used to enforce the ordinance.

Preserving personal items such as identification is crucial. But Vicky, a woman who has been homeless for more than a decade, said last week that she has been directed by Aurora workers to visit nearby food banks and food stamp offices after her camps were shut down in the past. When Vicky showed up to those human service organizations, she said there were long lines, and lots of paperwork requiring an identification card or a phone number to set up future appointments. Her identification card, phone and birth certificate were stolen, she said, and she has had trouble replacing them ever since.

“I just go and start it up somewhere else,” she said of her camps. “You gotta have some place.”

Vicky has been homeless for more than a decade and currently lives in Aurora. Social social services are difficult to navigate without an identification card, a cell phone or access to personal documents, she said. She does not support Aurora city council’s controversial goal of banning camping in the city. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Coffman, in an email, said he was confident there will be adequate shelter by the time the ordinance takes effect. “We only need enough for those who decide to take advantage of an alternative shelter option for the specific encampment being abated on any given day,” he wrote.

He did not provide an estimate of what it might cost to enforce the policy or house an additional 400 people, but wrote “it will cost less than the economic damage that these encampments currently do to our city.”

During the Monday meeting, Coffman reiterated that people would not be arrested when a camp is removed, but said they could be cited for trespassing if they refuse to move on.

Many who oppose Aurora’s ban pointed to Denver’s unauthorized camping ordinance. They said homelessness in Denver has only grown worse since its ban was instituted in 2012. The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened homelessness in the city. 

Initiative 300, which would have repealed Denver’s camping ordinance, was rejected by voters in 2019, said Sabrina Allie, a spokesperson for the Department of Housing Stability. 

Homelessness service providers have criticized the ordinance, saying it could increase arrests and convictions, which keep people from finding permanent housing. Camping bans are often instituted in many cities after homelessness becomes more visible, and as a result, many people who are homeless simply move on to a nearby municipality where a camping ban does not exist, said Cathy Alderman, chief communications and public policy officer for the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless.

“We’re really disappointed to see this camping ban move forward. We know that camping bans do not work. In fact, they oftentimes make it worse,” Alderman said of the Aurora rule. “Homelessness is going to continue, and people are just going to end up with criminal records and fines they can’t pay, which again, is just going to perpetuate that cycle for them and make it even harder for them to get into housing.”


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