AURORA | Aurora City Council members voted narrowly late Monday night to ban unauthorized public camping, laying the groundwork for stricter enforcement targeting homeless campers.
It was the ban’s second wind after a split City Council effectively shelved it in August. On Monday, opponents redoubled their criticisms that the ban would be ineffective and cruel, while supporters insisted it would mitigate the public health problems associated with camps and even help connect homeless people with resources.
“The top priority of any local government should be public safety,” Councilmember Dustin Zvonek said. “This proposal is the one step that we can take as a local government to start to push some of those people who are in encampments, who’ve disassociated from society and from support, into a shelter situation.”
“Our current status quo is not working,” said Councilmember Curtis Gardner. “We need to do this. It’s one tool in the tool belt.”
Sponsored by Mayor Mike Coffman, the ban prohibits unauthorized camping on public and private land. Campers could be arrested or fined up to $2,650 if they refuse to leave a campsite after being given at least 72 hours to do so, and city-sanctioned shelter space would have to be available before a camp could be abated.
The city currently abates homeless encampments using a variety of laws and regulations.
The new ban would codify rather than change the city’s policy on notice, consequences for not leaving a campsite and the requirement concerning the availability of shelter.
Like most cities, Aurora stepped back from enforcement at the onset of the pandemic.
Critics argued that the ban was little more than a repackaging of the city’s current strategy of abating campsites, and that the city was leaning into a dysfunctional status quo.
“It does not and will not do a damn thing to improve the quality of life for our residents,” Councilmember Juan Marcano said. “It is as cruel and inhumane as you can get. It does not change, materially, the living conditions for folks in our city, housed and unhoused alike.”
Marcano moved unsuccessfully for the item to be tabled indefinitely and for the city to pay for an alternative housing-first solution. Council members voted 6-4 along party lines to reject Marcano’s proposal, with Marcano and councilmembers Alison Coombs, Ruben Medina and Crystal Murillo in favor.
Marcano also tried and failed to rally support to amend Coffman’s proposal in several ways. Members voted on the same 6-4 split to reject his amendments, which would have included extending the notice period to seven days, allowing police to detain but not arrest campers who refused to leave a campsite, removing vehicle camping from the ban and other changes.
An amendment by Murillo that would have made the ban sunset after one year and require staffers to prepare an annual report on implementation was a mixed success. Council members again voted 6-4 along party lines to strike down the sunset clause but voted unanimously to introduce the reporting requirement.
Murillo also received the tentative support of other council members, including conservatives such as Francoise Bergan and Curtis Gardner, to work with Assistant City Attorney Tim Joyce on another amendment that would establish a procedure for the personal belongings of campers to be stored in the wake of a sweep.
Council members ultimately voted 6-5 to introduce the ban, as Coffman broke the tie in favor and council member Angela Lawson voted alongside progressives, saying she believed the city had not done enough to communicate with the state Department of Transportation and Colorado Parks and Wildlife about how the ban would be implemented.
She pointed out that campers along the Interstate 225 corridor and around Cherry Creek State Park are within different jurisdictions and may face requirements for notice.
“Along where the state park is, we haven’t even had conversations, so you’re going to see people there, you’re going to see individuals that are unhoused there until we maybe can work something out,” she said.
The council also voted 9-1 to pass a companion resolution that would direct the city manager to “look for, create, and maintain sufficient shelter options to provide a safe space for individuals and families in an unauthorized camp that desire to use a shelter option.”
Murillo voted “no,” after questioning staff about what the resolution would direct them to do that is not already a priority for the city.
The council votes followed a raucous public hearing that lasted for about two hours and was punctuated by arguing between opponents of the ban and Bergan, who ran the meeting as mayor pro tem while Coffman promoted the ban.
The hearing had to be paused at one point when a homeless Auroran who identified himself as Omen Cross said he would challenge Coffman’s mayoral seat if the council passed the ban. Attendees in the council chambers applauded Cross, and Bergan called for a recess.
“You are setting an example as to whether or not this kind of behavior is OK,” Cross said. “If this council has become so corrupted that you can’t see the poison that’s in your own heart right now, mister mayor, I officially challenge you for the title of mayor of the City of Aurora.”
Many of the people who spoke against the ban said they were affiliated with the Party for Socialism and Liberation. Joel Northam was among them, saying the ban would only contribute to friction between the community and police, and criticizing Coffman personally for a televised stint posing as a homeless person last year.
“You have the means to expand social protections, vocational training programs, etc., more generally, but instead you’d rather commit resources to just shuffling people around endlessly, people who have nothing,” he said. “This resolution will only contribute to further dehumanization of an already vulnerable population.”
Others spoke at City Hall to endorse the ban.
“I am happy to see that this council is supporting a compassionate notion to move people, as was said earlier, off the streets,” said William Overton, adding that he was worried about people living outdoors in subzero temperatures. “It is wrong, and it is not safe, and people are dying on these streets.”
“This is not a perfect step, but it is a first step,” another speaker, Danny Moore, said. “We are our brother’s keepers, and sometimes that means we have to help our citizens when they don’t seem to know they need help.”