“The effects of this may be greater this year with fewer beds available in shelters due to social distancing.”
Byron Shaw, a street outreach staffer with Mile High Behavioral Healthcare, knows homeless people living in Aurora very well.
These days, he knows more of them than ever.
He knows Kurt and Pop, homeless men stationed in a camp near East 16th Avenue and Laredo Street. He knows Lotoiiah Shirlyn-Lorquet, who wrapped her arms around Shaw Sept. 10 when he arrived at her tent to hand out food. Shaw can point out encampments throughout Aurora and say who lives there.
Shaw says he is noticing new faces — and more tents — when making his rounds. He hands out essentials such as food and shampoo, but his main job is to inform people without homes where to find a free shower and an opportunity to get off the streets.
“I’ve been doing this for three years,” Shaw said. “And this is the busiest summer I’ve had in three years. For sure.”
City of Aurora and Mile High officials, too, say more unhoused people are weathering the outdoors in Aurora six months after the COVID-19 pandemic debuted.
And while officials can’t point to precise causes of the uptick, civil unrest and so-called “sweeps” of enormous homeless encampments in Downtown Denver pushed some people along East Colfax Avenue after July, they say.
“What I’m being told by many of them, is that they feel unsafe downtown and want to come to Aurora,” Bob Dorshimer, Mile High’s chief executive officer, said of the new arrivals.
He estimated Aurora’s homeless population spiked about 20% after the sweeps began in late July.
More Aurorans might also be falling out of jobs and into homelessness during the pandemic-induced recession. And if someone does land on the street, they’ll find social distancing requirements have reduced space in area shelters, while cities including Aurora have abided by a general policy not to break up encampments for fear of spreading the new coronavirus — with some exceptions.
Aurora officials say they’re occasionally sweeping encampments that become too prominent. Last month, police and city staff dispersed a central Aurora camp of more than 20 tents in Spencer Garrett Park after hearing complaints from business owners and residents. Observers said some people lost their tents and possessions to dump trucks.
Shelley McKittrick, the city’s homelessness program director, said she’d never seen a camp so large and prominent in her four years of working in Aurora.
She said the trend in Aurora is on par with other Denver suburbs, too. Arvada, Lakewood, Englewood and Westminster officials told the Sentinel they’ve seen more people experiencing homelessness during the summer.
When Shaw scoured Aurora for new homeless encampments Sept. 10,
relatively small camps lined Aurora arteries near the Aurora Day Resource Center at the intersection of East 19th Place and Wheeling Street.
It’s a central hub offering meals, warmth, free showers and free laundry, but also case workers and pipelines to mental health and housing resources.
Beyond the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, people had pitched their tents east to Airport Boulevard and down the Highline Canal Trail, as well as Havana Street and regional bike paths. In Mile High’s white street outreach van, Shaw thumbed through a daunting stack of paper on the dash. They were dozens of residents’ complaints about homeless encampments popping up in their neighborhood — or simply, their city — filed through the city’s Access Aurora portal.
He’s seeing more reports because more people are camping, he said.
The reports often come with a message. “Lots of trash,” one person wrote about a possible homeless site. In another, a person said they were being harassed by apparently homeless people, and they vowed to carry a gun.
The reports also carry a location. Shaw’s job is to fire up the van and check in on the homeless residents. He brings the “hygiene”
kits filled with toothpaste, toothbrushes, socks and shampoo. But his main purpose is to connect people with Mile High’s plethora of resources and help them get off the street. He’ll drive them to and from the Aurora Day Resource Center or to a shelter of their choice — if they want to go.
Shaw said the camps have largely been left alone by authorities for much of the pandemic at the recommendation of public health experts.
“All summer they’ve been saying, ‘Do not move the camps,’” he said.
That guidance, issued by the CDC in the spring, said homeless people might be particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 because of an inability to “stay at home” and self-isolate. There was a worry that shelters and resource hubs would become a place for unhoused people to congregate, possibly spreading the virus, the CDC said. While homeless people and service providers grappled with the risk, advocates feared more people would fall into homelessness.
The pandemic and accompanying business restrictions crashed the U.S. economy in March. Housing advocates feared an avalanche of evictions as unemployment rates spiked to historic levels.
Coloradans have been evicted during the pandemic, but advocates have so far not seen the wave of evictions they feared. According to the Colorado Apartment Association, a landlord’s organization, about 95% of Coloradans paid their rent on time in August. Colorado and the U.S. have been covered since the spring by various eviction bans, including a nationwide ban announced by the CDC this month.
For years, Aurora housing advocates have said rising rents push people onto the streets or out of the city entirely. Under McKittrick, the city deployed rent help and resettlement programs long before COVID-19 to address and prevent homelessness.
A point-in-time survey in January, conducted by the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative, had more than 4,100 people without homes in Denver. That month, about 425 people were counted as literally homeless in Aurora. Of that group, about 60 people were living on the street, 90 people lived in transitional housing and 275 people lived in emergency housing.
By June, encampments were swelling in Denver during a pause in the city’s policy to routinely disperse illegal camps. Hundreds of homeless residents established themselves in Lincoln Park, near the State Capitol building. Nightly protests for racial justice enveloped the area after the death of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer in May. Tear gas often clouded the air. Soon, tents also surrounded Morey Middle School in Denver’s Capitol Hill neighborhood.
To cope with the situation, Denver opened motels and converted the National Western Complex and Denver Coliseum into shelters. Aurora opened a COVID-19 quarantine motel for housing-insecure people, which was recently closed.
But in late July, Denver authorities and state troopers cleared the Lincoln Park encampment, potentially violating CDC guidance to “allow people who are living unsheltered or in encampments to remain where they are.” A week later, as the 2020-2021 school year neared, authorities also forced people to pack up and leave Morey Middle School.
The conditions in Denver sent new people into Aurora looking for shelter or food at Mile High facilities, or a place to stay outdoors, officials say.
“We have a lot of migration of people right now,” Dorshimer said. “Many of the campers that we have met that have been coming from Denver like the open space of Aurora. And they also have gotten tired of the riots.”
Dorshimer said that unhoused people in Aurora can enjoy relative space compared to Denver. There’s some peace and quiet. And shelters in Denver aren’t popular, he said, because of rampant drug use, violence and the possibility of contracting the virus. Dorshimer said that, compared to Denver, Mile High’s facilities in Aurora have remained much safer, with low COVID-19 cases. The Aurora Day Resource Center and Comitis Crisis Center, an overnight shelter, quickly implemented social distancing, hand-washing and disinfecting when the new coronavirus appeared. The city’s need for the quarantine hotel dwindled over the summer because of the low cases.
But the successful social distancing efforts had a downside: less shelter space. Shaw said, in the early days of the pandemic, the shelters were sometimes full.
When meeting people living on the streets, he can give people beds in Comitis Crisis Center. But the Day Resource Center doesn’t allow overnight stays barring cold weather. In total, Mile High can temporarily house about 200 individuals and families.
A New Element
Shaw, driving the Mile High outreach van on Fitzsimons Parkway, pointed down East 17th Place to the location of the old Denver Meadows mobile home park.
“There’s people all down here,” he said. “Any bridge you drive over that doesn’t have water under it? There’s probably someone down there.”
The Sentinel visited four camps Sept. 10, which are generally smaller than the large encampments in downtown Denver. Over five hours, Shaw only met one new person, Michael Hennessey, who was visiting a friend’s encampment. He said he had an apartment, but he would soon be on the streets.
He cited social anxiety as a big driver in his life.
“My social skills suck,” he said. “Five years in prison in the last 10. You usually have one roommate, and you don’t talk a lot.”
Shaw told him about Mile High’s mental health and shelter resources, and he handed him essentials. Kurt, who has long lived in Aurora without a house, sat alone in his camp off Laredo Street. That day, Kurt’s temporary home and other encampments were quiet. Private trash collectors arrived to clean rubbish that had spread onto the parking lot of a nearby apartment building.
Kurt said he originally fell into homelessness because of a 2017 fire in Santa Rosa, California. He said he lost his girlfriend and a massive marijuana crop in the flames. Then, he made his way to Georgia before settling in Aurora.
Shaw said he’s provided resources to Kurt for years and said he’s prone to confusing parts of his past. Kurt has remained living on the streets.
Bikes, electronics, trash, tents and blankets lined the open space where Kurt said he’s lived for several weeks after leaving a larger encampment nearby. “I called the cops myself and had them move us. People were just doing stupid s***,” he said. “It got so bad, people were getting so high.”
He also said a man was walking into women’s tents with his penis out, scaring them.
Sexual violence in particular plagues unhoused people, McKittrick said. She thinks that, with people recently coming to Aurora, the dynamic has likely become more dangerous in some encampments.
“There’s also an element of folks who are more ragged and more survival-crime oriented, and it has changed the shape of things a bit, I think. Our local Aurora-type homeless folks…there are a lot of people who are outside here that are terrified to go downtown. Like, that’s why they’re in Aurora,” she said.
While following the CDC guidelines not to break up camps, McKittrick said the city sometimes has a responsibility to intervene in situations on public land that simply become too dangerous.
“We don’t just want to allow that to happen to the folks that are living in the camps or in the neighborhood,” she said.
Earlier this summer, the city helped disperse people living outside of Aurora near Cherry Creek State Park. Illegal campers in the park attracted attention last year, when they said an area resident was harassing them and throwing away their possessions.
McKittrick said that encampment was “problematic for months” and had devolved into violence at the behest of “bad actors.” There were domestic violence issues in particular.
In the spring, the city broke up an encampment underneath a bridge near East Colfax Avenue and Potomac Street. The camp was near Mile High’s resource hubs on the Anschutz Medical Campus and, at its height, consisted of more than 20 tents, McKittrick said. City officials said a sweep was necessary after an open space ranger saw a person coughing near the camp. There was an ambulance called to the camp over COVID-19 concerns, but tests revealed people there weren’t infected, according to McKittrick.
Later, on Aug. 27, a cross-departmental crew of city staff arrived at Spencer Garrett Park to break up that prominent encampment. Yemane Habtezgi owns Laundry on the Fax, just one block south of the park on East Colfax Avenue and Kenton Street. He said he’d been calling city departments for months to have the camp moved because of open drug use, drinking, nudity and human waste peppering the park and surroundings. He also claims a disgruntled girlfriend set a man’s tent on fire.
“My original concern was because of the neighborhood. A lot of families, a lot of children, they play there,” he said. “The city, oh my god, they were blaming everybody. Because they say, this is not our issue.”
McKittrick said residents were given notice that the sweep was coming and had ample time to prepare. Dmitri Lofton told the Sentinel he lived in the encampment and was pushed out.
“Police, the city, decided to move us,” Lofton said Sept. 10 at his new spot, a grassy patch near the Community College of Aurora’s Lowry campus. He said the area was clean by his standards.
“We wasn’t bothering nobody,” he said.
Shaw said a lot of people packed up their stuff before the city operation brought dump trucks and hazmat gear to clean up refuse and drug paraphernalia. But some people lost their possessions because they were away, he said.
“I’m not really sure if that was in compliance with CDC guidelines or not,” Shaw said of the sweep. “It wouldn’t seem like it was.” Dorshimer, Mile High’s chief, said Aurora is tactfully balancing public health and safety by allowing camps to exist until they become too large or dangerous.
“I think Aurora’s got the right approach,” he said.
Habtezgi said unhoused people have since moved to a different spot on East Colfax Avenue, between two fast food restaurants. Lofton has also seen that camp.
“Living in a rain ditch, ‘cause they got no place to go,” he said.
Not Just Aurora
McKittrick said it’s normal for unhoused people to migrate within a city and between Denver metroplex municipalities.
If a person has a court date, for instance, they might move their possessions to a place near the courthouse. Or, if they experience a traumatic event like a sexual assault, they’ll move to the other side of the metro area.
She didn’t attribute the recent uptick entirely to policies in Denver. And she said other municipalities have noticed more unhoused people in their borders, too.
“It’s not an Aurora-specific issue,” she said.
“Many of the campers that we have met that have been coming from Denver like the open space of Aurora. And they also have gotten tired of the riots.”
Sgt. Jon Alesch, who works on the Lakewood Police Department’s Community Action Team, said authorities there have seen a trend similar to Aurora’s.
Encampments have become larger, and there are more unhoused people in the city of late. The new arrivals seem to be experienced at living on the streets, not newly homeless people, he said.
Alesch has heard that people coming from Denver say it’s “kind of a weird environment” with COVID-19 and the civil unrest.
“So they’ve left that area to find a quieter, safer place to be,” he said.
In Englewood, police are working to respond to a large encampment on its border with Denver.
“We definitely have noticed some new faces,” said Sgt. Reid McGrath of the Englewood Police Department.
Westminster city spokesman Ryan Hegreness said it’s hard to track migration trends among the homeless population, but officials are also seeing more unhoused people.
“It is not uncommon to see an increase this time of year as there are fewer indoor places for people to stay,” he said in an email. “The effects of this may be greater this year with fewer beds available in shelters due to social distancing.”
On Aurora’s Anschutz Medical Campus, the Day Resource Center and overnight shelters aren’t experiencing a surge in people seeking the indoors. More people are instead looking for meals, said Mike Marsico, senior director of programs and operations.
He said staff are sallying forth with their efforts to provide unhoused people with basic necessities and connect them to life-changing resources.
City programs, meanwhile, aim to keep more people from becoming homeless. In the spring and summer, Aurora began paying up to two months of rent for tenants in financial dire straits because of the pandemic. And with federal dollars, the city is planning to create a winter shelter providing more, socially-distanced space for unhoused people. Currently, Mile High facilities “activate” during cold weather events to allow for more people. Blizzards and cold snaps usually put facilities near capacity, Marsico said.
As cold nights approach, Dmitri Lofton is sharing a big tent with his wife, Linda, and his brother, Derek Green. Last week, the group was spread out in the tent with the flap open. Dmitri munched on a candy bar Shaw had given him. He said the crew was homeless for health and mental health reasons, rendering them unable to work, even though they want to.
In anticipation of fall weather, a concerned resident had given the group a kerosene-powered space heater. Dmitri held it up. But he said they didn’t have any kerosene yet.