“You show me a homeless person, and I’ll show you a person who’s faced with circumstances beyond their control.” This is according to John Alexander, a man who’s been experiencing homelessness in the Denver metropolitan area for 20 years, and who had no idea Aurora recently passed an urban camping ban.
Following in the footsteps of Denver’s, which passed a decade ago next month, the ban allows law enforcement to remove encampments after 72 hours of notice, as long as there is sufficient shelter available for everyone in the encampment. It was brought to the Aurora City Council on Feb. 28 by Mayor Mike Coffman, to hours of public testimony. It passed 6-5 with Coffman breaking the tie that day, with a second, and then final reading in March, passing both times.
Missing from the impassioned public remarks on what is best, and what is humane or not, was the voice of the people directly affected by this ban — those experiencing homelessness.
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For some, it’s because they didn’t know it even passed.
Alexander only first heard of the ban when asked by a reporter his thoughts on it, and he said he doesn’t think there will be a difference compared to how the police have treated people so far. He gives an example of seeing the police raiding encampments the day Denver’s encampment ban was first deemed unconstitutional by the county court. The ruling was reversed nine months later.
Jason, 40, who did not want has last name used, has been homeless in Denver since 2019 after breaking his back. His view of the Aurora ban was similar to Alexander’s, and he was one of the few people experiencing homelessness in Aurora interviewed by a reporter who knew the ban passed. He said he’s watched the situation closely, “because obviously I’m invested, everyone’s invested.”
To him, the ban is “hypocritical” and “irresponsible,” saying, “Can’t camp, but you have only one shelter in the city of Aurora,” referring to the Comitis Crisis Center. “The camping ban doesn’t mean we can’t be outside — that’s really the main point — the camping ban means we can’t be safe outside.”
“I think they’re doing it in the wrong way. They’re trying to help motivate people to do better, but they’re doing it the wrong way,” said Jarrodi Parker, 34, who’s been living out of his van in Aurora, and also wasn’t aware of the ban.
Terese Howard, homeless advocate and founder of Housekeys Action Network Denver, explained that these bans just push people around, possibly into more dangerous and secluded areas if they don’t just move a block away from where they were before.
There’s this illusion that you need this stick to connect people to services. That’s a lie, it doesn’t work. You can just look back at the last 10 years of Denver to see the reality of that lie.
– Terese Howard, of Housekeys Action Network Denver
“There’s this illusion that you need this stick to connect people to services. That’s a lie, it doesn’t work. You can just look back at the last 10 years of Denver to see the reality of that lie,” she said. “It’s meant, first and foremost, to push people out-of-sight, out-of-mind.”
The impassioned remarks by the public to the Council on Feb. 28 were both in support and opposition to the ordinance.
One supporter, Danny Moore, a small business owner, said the ordinance gives “tangible steps to ending homelessness in our town. Our empathy for public camping has created a hammock that prevents the people that need the most help from getting it.”
An opposer, identified as Joel, a member of the Party for Socialism and Liberation in Aurora, says, “I think that the conservative wing of the Council wants to use this to hide the larger systemic housing issues in Aurora.” He elaborated that the ordinance will “further the dehumanization of an already vulnerable population, and increase the risk of more violent confrontations and abuses by the notoriously gangster-ish Aurora Police Department.”
Another supporter, identifying himself only as a “right-wing conservative,” said he is “happy to see the Council supporting a compassionate notion to move people off the streets. It was negative three degrees the other day, and to have people on the streets is uncompassionate, wrong, and not safe — people are dying.”
‘They have no idea’
Alexander, when told about these remarks, said that the ban alone wouldn’t help those who were homeless.
“A lot of those people know how to go to a vacant house, or empty building or something,” he explained. If there was an organized effort busing them to a shelter, rather than sleeping on the street, “then of course that’s better. It’ll protect them from themselves, the elements — but they aren’t doing that.”
One woman experiencing homelessness in Aurora, who goes by Spring — and was also unaware of the ban — thought people supported it “because they have no idea what this life is like, living off the land. They’ve been born with a silver spoon.”
But, Alexander continued, “It sounds a lot better to me than what they have going on in Denver,” referring to Aurora’s clause of there being enough shelter available before clearing the encampments — a clause Denver’s ordinance does not have.
Jason, similarly, said he’d be happy to see some program to help move people experiencing homelessness and their belongings, commenting that the times he’s had an encampment dispersed, it had taken him longer than just a day or two to put it there.
But he also critiques the camping ban’s clause on there being enough shelter first.
“There’s no way. Comitis has, what, 30 beds? I’m sure there’s easily 200 homeless people in Aurora. Easily,” he said. “Denver has all types of shelters, I don’t understand why Aurora doesn’t. And I’m sure, I’m positive, that Aurora has more space than Denver.”
According to the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless’ count in 2020, in Aurora, there were 275 people staying in emergency shelters, 91 in transitional housing, and 61 unsheltered.
Howard sees the clause, though, as “political cover” just to pass the ban, helpful only if the “city actually takes that seriously to the extent of recognizing that they don’t have the spaces, so they can’t enforce the law.” She said that nowhere in the country is there enough shelter for all people experiencing homelessness. But, she added, “I’m guessing they didn’t pass the law to not enforce it.”
It’s also a forced choice, she said, “treating our shelter system like a jail system.”
“Your choice is either shelter-jail, or jail-jail. That’s absolutely criminalizing someone’s survival and existence … and you have to then ask the legitimate question: is there any difference?” she said.
Newsline contacted the Aurora Police Department with a request for comment but had not received a response by the time of publication.
To Alexander, it’s a moot point, as he says he hasn’t stayed in a shelter more than 12 days in the 25 years he’s been homeless, because he doesn’t find them to be safe. But, at least something is being done to try and help, he said, since usually the government’s “solutions are worse than plugging your finger to stop a dam.”
Council members Juan Marcano, Ruben Medina, Crystal Murillo, Alison Coombs and Angela Lawson voted against the measure, with Coombs bringing up concerns during the Feb. 28 meeting that “they are creating a minimal amount of shelter for the purposes of being able to abate more camps, and not for the purposes of really addressing this issue.”
Murillo stated that the Council “should be proactive in funding the things that are already in place instead of resolutions that have no teeth and with language that does not align with the narrative and rhetoric about it being compassionate.”
An amendment by Murillo requiring the city manager to develop a policy for storing personal property from dispersed encampments passed on March 14’s second reading of the ordinance. The policy was not yet finalized by the final reading, with Coffman saying staff were working on it, so it was not included in the final passage of the bill.
Council members Steve Sundberg, Danielle Jurinsky, Francoise Bergan, Curtis Gardner, Dustin Zvonek and Coffman voted in favor of the ordinance. Zvonek said in the Feb. 28 meeting that “this proposal is a step to push people in encampments into shelter situations as they deserve better.” Coffman stated in the final reading on March 28 that “this is an important first step in not only cleaning up our city, but helping those who are in these encampments, who would be required to go to a secure location where services will be provided.”
When asked about other solutions, Alexander says it doesn’t matter.
“Right now you and me could get the money together, and open ourselves up a prison tomorrow, and it would be busy,” he said. “Prisons, halfway houses, it pays. Crime is big business. That’s why they aren’t pushing it, homelessness is big business. This is nothing we can’t stop — the government, states and cities, it’s bulls***.”
“There’s so many solutions, so many things that could help,” Jason said. “Like port-a-potty. The city makes enough money just from marijuana sales, that they could put port-a-potty in different places. I wonder how much it costs to clear out an encampment with all the trash and stuff, and if you just put a dumpster somewhere.”
He also points to the barracks-like buildings around the Aurora Resource Center where he was visiting, saying some buildings around must be worth something to use.
“One of these barracks could house 100 homeless people. One,” he said. “Not having a vision, really not caring, apathy. Really what it boils down to is apathy.”