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Pallet shelters in Aurora, run by the Salvation Army, are photographed. The small structures house people who are homeless including people removed from encampments by city of Aurora leaders enforcing the area's urban camping ban. (Jackie Micucci, Contributed)

The city of Aurora has spent about $2 million enforcing its camping ban in the past year. But officials aren’t sure the year-old ordinance has been effective because the city did not collect critical data, such as the number of people who declined services when they were removed from their encampments.

From May 2022 through April of this year, the city conducted 399 abatements, or about 33 sweeps of homeless camp sites each month, Emma Knight, manager of homelessness for the city’s division of housing and community services, said during an update to the council earlier this month. 

When people are removed from their encampment, city leaders said they offer the person a chance to stay at a small pallet shelter for no longer than 30 days where they can eat three meals per day, if they agree to regularly engage with case managers and health care providers and seek substance use treatment and employment assistance if needed.

There were 179 people placed into two Salvation Army-run pallet shelters, which are made up of insulated shed-like structures that have windows and doors. One is off East Sixth Avenue and the other is off Peoria Street. Both offer intensive case management services for 30 days or six months, Knight said a day after the meeting, which occurred May 15.

In that same period, 115 people, or 80% of the people moved to the temporary pallet shelters, were able to access 299 pieces of “vital documents,” such as Social Security cards and birth certificates, which are key first steps toward moving into housing and finding employment, Knight said. And 17 people entered sober living or treatment facilities or reunified with their families, and 10 people found employment, she said.

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Also, 1,193 case management meetings occurred within that time period to help people move toward housing or employment. More than 12,000 meals were provided to people moved off the streets after abatements, Knight said.

However, the city did not track the number of people who accepted an offer to stay in a pallet shelter, but went back to living on the street. Knight said she was waiting to get that number from Salvation Army leaders but they did not respond to her request in time for publication.

The city also did not track the number of people who turned down services after they were removed from an encampment, because Knight said, the city did not yet have a tracking system in place to do so. 

The city also does not know how many people it came in contact with, in total, during the sweeps, so it’s unclear how successful the program is at reducing long-term homelessness or if it’s simply a short respite for people living on the street. The city will track those numbers moving forward, Knight said.

“These are folks coming directly from encampments, so they have a lot more barriers, which is one reason we have slightly low numbers in (who has moved into) housing, but these are really high numbers for this population, for just accessing services in general,” Knight said the day after the study session. “So, that’s what we’re really trying to promote on this. These are people that wouldn’t have been able to access services otherwise because they’re not saying ‘yes’ to our physical shelter that is available but they are saying ‘yes’ and asking us over and over about pallets. So people really want to be there.”

Knight said the city is working to add 30 more local pallet shelters because almost everyone removed from an encampment expressed interest in staying there rather than at the city’s Comitis Crisis Center. The crisis center has 150 beds, but is usually full, with programs to help people recover from trauma, mental illness, addiction and housing instability.

“I think we could probably alter a few things and tweak some things here and there, but for what we were trying to do, which was really get people connected to services, yes, it’s absolutely efficient and very effective at that,” Knight said of the camping ban.

When the city implemented its urban camping ban last year, it promised to remove people from the sidewalks and parks they inhabited, because Aurora leaders said those living conditions were inhumane and people should have an alternative shelter option that is safe, has sanitation and other services to help them find a job and permanent housing.

City council members who supported the camping ban, proposed by Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman, said residents and local businesses had complained about sanitation and public safety issues related to encampments in the city.

However, 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.

The $2 million estimate for the cost of enforcing the city’s urban camping ban includes bills for contractor cleanup services at abatements; salaries for staff members enforcing the camping ban; the cost to purchase, set up and repair temporary pallet shelters for people removed from encampments; shower trailers at each pallet shelter site; vehicles to conduct abatements and outreach to people who are homeless; and fuel costs, Knight said.

Permanent housing solutions

Knight said the city is working hard to find permanent housing solutions and think outside the box by not only serving people who are homeless by linking them to services they’ve indicated they desire, but also by addressing concerns from Aurora residents and business owners.

Listening to people and trying to “meet them where they’re at” is effective and essential, she said.

But it’s too soon to know if the city’s camping ban, and its promise to only remove encampments when enough shelter is available, is successful, said Cathy Alderman, chief communications and public policy officer for the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless.

“I think any time that a local government can get people out of an unsafe situation into a safe housing situation, or onto a stable housing path, that’s good news,” she said the day after the study session. “But the means by which they do it matters. So, I would also want to understand how many people were arrested or were offered services and rejected services because they were afraid of the ramifications of that interaction. It’s kind of hard to put it all into context.”

People have been arrested or cited after sweeps, Knight said. Since May 10, 2022, the Aurora Police Department has received 297 calls concerning public camping, and 85 of those calls have resulted in a summons. According to the data, 81 citations were issued to people for trespassing, four other summonses were issued to people for larceny and property damage and three people were taken into custody after officers learned there was a warrant for their arrest, the police department said after the meeting.

“Being ticketed or arrested only makes the experience of homelessness more difficult to get out of,” Alderman said.

Aurora’s camping ban is “interesting,” she said, because city leaders have vowed not to remove people from encampments if there isn’t enough shelter available. Camping bans generally are not solutions-focused and often do not result in more people getting housed, she said. Generally, camping bans shuffle people around and lead to higher arrests among the unhoused population.

Alderman and her colleagues at the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless were concerned when Aurora’s camping ban was implemented that the city lacked enough shelter space and that people who were homeless would not receive needed services attached to the program, she said.

“It does sound like they’ve managed to move some people into shelter, which is, again, good,” Alderman said. “But I just don’t fully understand the impact in terms of the total number of people they’ve contacted and what other things people went through because of that contact. Or, if they refused those services, what happened to those individuals?”

In all, city leaders have received about 3,036 reports on encampments from May 2022 to April. In all, 51% of reports were for encampments and 30% were about people living in vehicles. About 27% of those reports were made about the same encampment within 10 days, Knight said at the meeting.

Reports have ramped up since the camping ban passed. The city received 2,278 reports about encampments in 2021 and 900 in 2020. 

It takes anywhere from three to 10 days to abate a camp, Knight said. Typically, after city staff receive a report, it takes one or two days for them to arrive at the encampment for an in-person investigation, where campers are given a notice of abatement. During the next 72 hours, city staff and their contractor Keesen clean the area. 

Emergency abatements, or the removal of encampments without a 72-hour notice, can occur if a camp is in an area near water during a flood warning, if campers are blocking a fire exit, if a person or camp is ordered to vacate by a fire chief or officer during an emergency, or if a camp is on a public sidewalk causing less than 36 inches of free travel. Emergency abatements can also happen when a camp is along a public right of way or on a public sidewalk while snow needs to be plowed and when hazardous or explosive materials are present. 

“These don’t happen that often but the one that happens the most frequently is the public sidewalk with less than 36 inches of free travel,” Knight said.

Recommendations and improvements

The city is already working on creating a new information technology tracking sheet that staff would complete at each abatement to help them obtain more meaningful metrics, Knight said. The city also recently hired a new staff member to help conduct abatements. Likewise, the city is soon hiring an outreach team to help move people into pallet shelters before their encampments are shut down, so that abatements can run more smoothly, she said.

Aurora Mayor Coffman and city council members have inquired with Knight’s office about what would need to be done to increase abatements. Knight recommended expanding a contract for more cleanup services and additional police availability.

“I want to stress that we’re not suggesting more police presence than we already have at abatements, rather, if we have more abatements happening, PD would need to have officers available for additional hours,” Knight wrote in an email last week. “It’s more of a comment on police capacity.”

Adding 30 more pallet shelters would cost about $1.3 million, Knight said during the update to council. Each pallet costs about $11,000 if the property already has water and electrical hookups available. If the city needed to purchase generators, for example, which she does not recommend, that would make the work more expensive. The city does not yet have a location for the 30 additional pallets, but Knight said adding them may help more people who want to leave life on the streets behind.

“We’re seeing folks who are accepting shelter at pallets who were not otherwise accepting shelter because maybe another model just didn’t work for them,” she said.

She also recommended pursuing more transitional housing, such as by booking a floor at a hotel or motel, for people who need longer term housing or even purchasing a motel or converting an office building. 

At the end of the city council study session, Knight shared a few success stories.

One woman whose camp was abated recently started a new job at IHOP. 

Another woman, who entered the program with second-degree burns on her hands, received health care, obtained her driver’s license, and received a car from family members. 

Now, she’s optimistic about being able to work and will stay in contact with the city and reach out if she needs help again, Knight said.

Another couple was living on the street for seven years and came into the program with no health insurance, no vital documents and their benefits to receive food stamps had expired. 

They have since received help to obtain identification cards, birth certificates and Social Security cards, and were also recently re-enrolled into SNAP benefits and Medicaid services. They also started methadone treatment, and through case management and completing the VISPIDAT, a vulnerability index, they were matched with a permanent supportive housing program and signed a lease May 1.

“So now they’re in housing and doing great from everything I’ve heard,” Knight said during the study session. “That’s one of our best success stories out of those pallets and we’re really excited about that and want to see more folks move in that direction.”

Tatiana FlowersEquity and general assignment reporter

Tatiana Flowers is the equity and general assignment reporter for the Colorado Sun. She has covered crime and courts plus education and health in Colorado, Connecticut, Israel and Morocco. In her spare time, she enjoys skiing, intense exercise, working as a local DJ, and live music...