AURORA | Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman’s urban camping ban ordinance caught some fellow city lawmakers by surprise Monday when he announced his forthcoming proposal — which he won’t likely be able to cast a vote on — via Twitter.
“It’s frustrating because we get these tweets, and then this bomb is dropped, and then we get the aftermath, and then we don’t talk about it,” Councilmember Nicole Johnston said hours later during a Monday evening during a study session. “You had just said two weeks ago that people shouldn’t have emergency shelter options unless they get sober and have a job. Yet, if we have a camping ban, where are these folks going to go?”
The plan, aimed at people experiencing homelessness, will be formally submitted on Thursday, Coffman said in a string of tweets Monday morning. That will give the city attorney enough time to make sure the camping ban meets pandemic guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control last year, he said, and also to verify that it “meets the conditions spelled out in court decisions where camping bans have been challenged and were upheld.”
Addressing Johnston’s criticisms, Coffman said that a camping ban could only be in place if an “alternative” is an option in the city. City staff announced the closure of an emergency shelter, which housed about 100 people, in March and floated the idea of a sanctioned outdoor camping site.
“I support providing temporary shelter with the understanding that able-bodied individuals experiencing homelessness must participate in treatment programs to get sober and job training programs until they get find work (sic),” he said in a tweet from May 5.
The city has for months been exploring ways to reduce homelessness, most recently pledging to work with regional partners through the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative using the Built for Zero framework. Three councilmembers — Dave Gruber, Francoise Bergan and Marsha Berzins — voted against the pledge.
City staff are also gathering feedback from Aurorans, a step Johnston said was lacking from Coffman’s approach. On Wednesday, the city is set to host an “open house” so Aurora residents can learn more about shelter options for homeless people in the city. The event is slated from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. May 19 at the Restoration Christian Fellowship at 15660 E. Sixth Ave. The event will feature a variety of possible options, such as tiny homes, safe camping sites and a shower and bathroom trailer.
Councilmember Crystal Murillo agreed with Johnston in saying that Coffman, who under the charter has no vote on most legislation unless there’s a tie, is undermining a comprehensive and years-long effort to address the problem.
“We vote on policy, not you…. ” Johnston said. “And to bring something forward when we have this community engagement system in place — I would hope that you would say, ‘You know what, let me see what happens Wednesday. Let me see what happens with this public engagement. Let me attend a (Housing, Neighborhood Services and Redevelopment committee) meeting and talk to staff and then come up with some alternatives. But to go straight to this camping ban, it’s just not a responsible way to do policy.”
Other council members criticized the mayor’s proposal after he posted it on social media Monday.
“You already know that camping bans are costly, ineffective, and a waste of law enforcement’s time. Denver wastes millions a year moving people around and accomplishing absolutely nothing,” Councilmember Juan Marcano said in a tweet. “You have professional staff that have other data-driven recommendations. Listen to them.”
Councilmember Alison Coombs echoed that she “will be working with staff to support data-driven solutions.” Murillo stipulated that a ban might be unconstitutional “because we don’t have the shelter beds available to house our neighbors experiencing homelessness, setting us up to waste more city resources on inevitable lawsuits to defend a policy that does not work.”
The approach to reducing homelessness has become increasingly controversial among Aurora city lawmakers. Early this year Coffman took to the streets as “Homeless Mike” to investigate the problem himself, sharing his journey exclusively with CBS4.
“These encampments are not product of the economy or COVID. They’re not a product of rental rates or housing. They are part of a drug culture,” he told TV reporter Shaun Boyd. “It is a lifestyle choice and it is a very dangerous lifestyle choice.”
Earlier this month, Coffman said in a tweet he is worried the majority of city council members and staff “are moving in the direction of adopting solutions that will ultimately increase the problem of homelessness rather than decrease it.”
Johnston wrote a guest column in the Sentinel condemning Coffman’s comments.
Coffman said Monday his urban camping ban proposal will follow the regular process and go before a committee, then to an informal study session meeting and the floor for a vote.
“Every member here, including myself as mayor, has the ability to put policy questions forward, and you have the ability to vote them down, although you probably will not be here when the issue comes up. You’ll be a resident of Colorado Springs,” Coffman told Johnston, who recently announced her resignation and plans to move to bring her family closer together.
“No, I’ll stick around for a while,” she said. “But I feel like that’s intentional, the timing of this.”