Aurora, CO

‘Compassionate’ Aurora outlaws urban camping

David Heitz

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By David Heitz / NewsBreak Denver

(Aurora, Colo.) Aurora joined Denver, Boulder, Arvada, Centennial and Parker Monday to become the latest Front Range city to outlaw urban camping. But the city also adopted a companion ordinance that guarantees every person displaced during a sweep will be offered shelter.

The highly contentious meeting ran well past midnight. After a tie vote on the camping ban broken by Mayor Mike Coffman’s yes vote, some in the packed audience erupted with anger. People began to shout at the council “we pay you” and “you’re going to see us marching in the streets.”

Mayor Pro Tem Francois Bergan called a recess. Upon resuming the meeting, the council approved the companion ordinance which guarantees shelter for the displaced.

Council members Allison Coombs, Crystal Murillo, Angela Lawson, Ruben Medina, and Juan Marcano voted against the ban. Murillo previously has said it will cost taxpayers a lot of money. People opposed to the ban noted Monday that nobody knows how much the sweeps will cost.

Council members Marcano and Murillo proposed several amendments that did not pass. An amendment by Murillo to develop a policy for storing the belongings of people displaced had support. She plans to come back with a more specific proposal for the council to consider.

The ordinance must be voted on two more times to become law. A third vote is needed because of Murillo’s amendment.

Tents occupying people experiencing homelessness have sprouted in clusters along creeks, on the side of roads and on sidewalks. The shanty towns become trash-ridden because nobody provides garbage collection or receptacles. Bottles and buckets of human waste sometimes accumulate because public restrooms are scarce.

Drug use flourishes in the encampments. Mayor Mike Coffman knows. He went undercover last year posing as a homeless person on the streets of Aurora.

Mayor painted as uncaring tyrant

But Coffman absorbed hit after hit Monday as people against the ban painted him as uncaring and only for the rich. They said his going undercover as a homeless person was a cruel publicity stunt.

Aurora approved $4.5 million in services earlier this month for people experiencing homelessness. The council slashed funding for a proposed homeless services campus, however.

The council chambers erupted Monday as people spoke on both sides of the issue. The discourse ended abruptly when a homeless veteran told the mayor he had “poison in his heart,” adding, “If you won’t stand with the people, I will.”

Mayor Pro Tem Francoise Bergan banged her gavel and declared a recess as she called out to police officers. Several people who spoke said they felt intimidated by the large police presence at the meeting. They alleged city officials wanted police there to intimidate people opposed to the camping ban.

Council members who supported the ban said it’s what their constituents want. Council member Danielle Jurinsky said business owners bear the brunt of the encampments. “They come in (to these businesses) and they need things. Toilet paper, towels, soap … they are taking these things out of these businesses.”

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Earlier council voted down ban

Coffman has been trying to ban urban camping ever since his election. Six months ago, the City Council voted his proposal down, saying a ban leads to more sweeps. They called the practice of dismantling the encampments inhumane.

What a difference six months makes. After an election in November, a new council in Aurora consisting of mostly Republicans says it’s inhumane not to enact the camping ban. They note people living in encampments must tolerate deplorable conditions.

A handful of residents praised the council for the sweeps. They supported the camping ban. Some of them said they are proud conservatives.

A staff report to council reads, “The city of Aurora is committed to a compassionate and care-focused approach to balancing the needs and security of those experiencing homelessness with the concerns of community members and the need to maintain the safety and health of the city as a whole.”

Campers told to take property with them

The original ban called for campers displaced during the sweeps to take their personal property with them. Examples of personal property include structurally sound tents, clothing, shoes, jackets, tarpaulins, sleeping bags, bedrolls, blankets, backpacks, duffel bags, assembled bicycles, tools, watches, jewelry, audio/visual equipment, medications, toiletries, eyeglasses, purses, handbags, books, and baby strollers.

Personal property does not include building materials, metal, shopping carts, disassembled bicycles, makeshift shelters, rigid plastic, garbage, trash, rubbish, debris, litter, or waste.

In Denver, workers at sweeps must store personal property. But activists say it often does not get stored. Encampment dwellers can retrieve their belongings at a storage site.

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Encampment angst crosses party lines

Although a Republican-controlled council voted to approve the ban, angst over encampments crosses party lines. Ultra-liberal Denver and Boulder have camping bans and perform sweeps, too.

“I do not represent a political party,” said one public speaker Monday. “But I represent a lot of people who cannot be here tonight.” He went on to explain he stands for residents who support the ban. He said they are forced to clean up messes left by the campers.

Aurora’s City Attorney’s Office says the ban will stand up in court. In a memo to council, the office quoted City and County of Denver v. Burton. “Camping bans can be constitutional and lawful if drafted in a manner that is not motivated by a discriminatory purpose, that does not harm a politically unpopular group of people and criminalizes an activity not a status. Denver’s camping ban ordinance was ruled to be constitutional criminalizing an activity, not a status.”

Courts uphold ban

The courts also have upheld Boulder’s camping ban, saying it criminalizes the conduct of camping, not the status of homelessness.

The City Attorney’s office also quoted a 1968 public drunkenness case, Powell v. Texas. “Imposing a criminal sanction for public behavior which creates substantial health and safety hazards for those involved in the activity and for members of the general public, and which offends the moral and esthetic sensibilities of a large segment of the community does not violate the Eighth Amendment.”

Coffman believes his ordinance improves upon Denver’s. It includes a companion provision requiring the city to supply shelter to everyone displaced in a sweep. If shelter space is not available, the sweep can’t go ahead.

But critics of the ban say the shelter mandate is vague.

Party of Socialism and Liberation shows up

Several members of the Party of Socialism and Liberation spoke during public comment Monday. More than 40 people signed up to speak.

Most of the speakers blasted the Aurora Police Department. They said the department is a “gang” and will “terrorize people experiencing homelessness.” Members of the group called Aurora police “murderers” and said they should not be allowed to interact with homeless people.

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The Aurora Police Department is working under a consent decree after the death of Elijah McClain. Council member Curtis Gardner called complaints about the police department “old and tired.”

Bitter partisanship dominated the meeting. Bergan, who ran the camping ban part of the meeting because the mayor sponsored the legislation, slammed her gavel several times and asked for order. One woman refused to stop talking and would not sit down when her time was up. “One more and we take a recess,” Bergan said, banging her gavel.

“You’d make a great schoolteacher,” giggled someone on the dais from a hot mic.

Camping ban divides Denver

In Denver, the camping ban divides the city. People who have encampments outside their windows regularly plead to the council for help during public comment period. So do advocates for people experiencing homelessness, who say the bans turn the unhoused into criminals. No issue gets more attention than the sweeps, regardless of where residents stand.

Usually, campers return to their spots within a few days after a sweep. The city must notify tent-dwellers in advance of the sweeps. In Aurora, the law mandates at least three days’ notice be given. Shelter housing will be offered.

Marcano said he tracked one encampment as the city swept it from spot to spot. It moved from Best Buy to a creek as it repeatedly was swept. Eventually it ended up right back where it started, at Interstate 225 and Mississippi.

“On the day of a scheduled abatement the outreach team once again provides individuals at the camp with services and other resources and an offer of transportation to the Aurora Day Resource Center, where services and counselors are available,” according to a city staff report.

The new law includes exceptions to the three-day advance notice rule. Officials can dismantle a camp at once if it’s in an area that floods, blocks the sidewalk or any parking lot exits, or fire officials consider it unsafe. Crews also can sweep without notice encampments in the path of snow-plow routes.

Residents sound off

Council members for and against the ban have encouraged resident feedback. Earlier this month, council member Dustin Zvonek said he would welcome a dialogue. Democratic council members asked to delay the vote until the council returned to in-person meetings. In-person meetings resumed last week.

Those who oppose the ban said people experiencing homelessness suffer enough as it is. Chasing them around the city does nothing, they added.

“You are crying about a problem that you have created and that you continue to contribute to,” said Sidney Fisk, shouting her comments at the council. She said the measure “is nothing but cruel and classist,” adding, “I will give the GOP credit for trying to make this look compassionate.”

The only way to solve homelessness is to supply permanent supportive housing, most residents who spoke told the council.

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I've been in the news business 35 years, spending much of my career at local newspapers. Today, I report on Denver and Aurora city halls for NewsBreak. Prior to joining NewsBreak, I worked several years as a health reporter and branded content writer in the healthcare space. I also worked many years as a news editor and city editor. I consider myself a lucky guy to live in a great place like Denver.

Denver, CO
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