Aurora, CO

Aurora advances proposed urban camping ban

David Heitz

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By David Heitz / NewsBreak Denver

(Aurora. Colo.) Aurora moved another step closer to approving an urban camping ban Monday.

During a study session, council members agreed to vote on the proposal at their Feb. 14 meeting.

Mayor Mike Coffman tried to introduce a camping ban last year, but the measure failed. Since then, the council's political makeup changed, and he introduced the proposal again.

A new Republican majority has indicated it supports the camping ban. The discussion Monday included many references to the ban being a done deal.

"To be cruel to those experiencing homelessness is to do nothing," Coffman said. "The cruelest thing we can do is do nothing and enable their current behavior to continue."

Coffman said the public's patience with homeless encampments has worn thin. "The majority of the residents of this city are fed up with what's going on."

City to provide shelter for displaced campers

The new ban includes provisions for supplying food, shelter, and restrooms to anyone displaced by the urban camping sweeps.

Coffman said nobody would be cited for camping unless they refused to leave. Police could arrest campers for not obeying an order to move. According to assistant city manager Tim Joyce, a judge also could fine the campers up to $2,650.

People living in their cars or RVs would not be subject to sweeps unless their vehicles do not run. The city defines "residing" or "dwelling" as when a person eats, sleeps, gets ready to sleep, or stores personal possessions. Residing or dwelling does not include napping during the day or picnicking.

Under the proposed ordinance, a person covered with a blanket could be considered camping.

Democratic voting bloc tries to stall

Four council members that are part of a Democratic voting bloc of Allison Coombs, Crystal Murillo, Ruben Medina, and Juan Marcano opposed advancing the proposal for a vote.

Murillo spoke at length about the hypocrisy surrounding the ban. Earlier in the meeting, the council axed an adult day program out of cost concerns. Some members also expressed reservations about the cost of giving city employees Juneteenth as a paid day off.

But Coffman's proposal also would include costs, Murillo said. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development won't reimburse cities for placing people in tents. During COVID-19, cities were allowed to use sturdy fishing tents with heat. Coffman proposed sheltering the homeless in their own tents in legally designated camping areas. The city also could house them in hotels or motels (with a three-day minimum stay), pallet shelters or traditional shelters.

Shelter beds scarce in Aurora

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Director of Housing and Community Services Jessica Prosser said the city has 150 shelter beds, and most are used every night. She believes the shelter could accommodate small encampment sweeps of 10 people or less. More extensive sweeps would require more shelter beds.

Homelessness Services Manager Lana Dalton said there are "no resources to bolster additional shelter capacity."

City Council member Dustin Zvonek said the council would award $5 million to nonprofits for homeless services at next week's meeting. He suggested the city manager reach out to those nonprofits and explain the city needs more shelter capacity.

Encampment cleanups underway

The city already performs encampment cleanups for the Colorado Department of Transportation. The state requires giving campers seven days' notice before a sweep. Aurora could dismantle camps after giving three days' notice on city property.

The ordinance also includes exceptions for not giving three days' notice. That includes when encampments sit in potential flood areas, block the sidewalk (leaving less than 36 inches of free travel space), or prevent plowing the sidewalk.

If the city finds hazardous or explosive materials, it can immediately remove camps. Police and fire officials say they routinely find dozens of propane tanks at homeless encampments.

Denver ban hasn't solved homelessness

Marcano took issue with Coffman's definition of "cruel." He said, "pushing people around in perpetuity, which already is done," is cruel.

Marcano said the camping ban is a game of "whack a mole" while "setting taxpayer money on fire."

Despite Denver's camping ban, homelessness is increasing.

"Ultimately at the end of the day, we're accomplishing nothing," Marcano said.

Homeless people Aurora residents, too

Council member Alison Coombs called Coffman's remarks about cruelty hypocritical. "We can't say we want to avoid cruelty and also create an inhospitable environment to people experiencing homelessness."

Coffman said the campers have caused "great economic damage," adding, "Given their behavior, these individuals are threats to themselves. The blight associated with this as people drive through our city is problematic."

Bergan said the city has an obligation to residents frustrated by the encampments. Coombs replied that people experiencing homelessness are residents, too, to which Began replied, "Fair enough."

No in-person public comment

Murillo said although the council will meet in person on Feb. 14, the public will not be allowed. "I know you and the mayor kind of set that up," she told Bergan.

Murillo added the debate over the camping ban has been "politically charged," and people will want to comment in person.

Bergan said city staff has concerns about occupancy in the council chambers due to COVID.

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I've been in the news business 35 years, spending much of my career in editing roles at local newspapers in Los Angeles, Detroit, and the Quad-Cities of Illinois and Iowa. Upon moving to Denver in 2018, I began experiencing severe mental illness due to several traumatic experiences. I became homeless on the street for about a year before spending time in the state mental hospital. I am living proof that people can rebound from mental illness with proper treatment, even after experiencing homelessness. I consider myself a lucky guy to live in a great place like Denver. I hope my writing reflects the passion I have for living here.

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