AURORA | Disagreement over how to house the city’s homeless, especially as colder weather approaches, continued over the weekend as Aurora City Council members debated whether it’s better to purchase additional tents or more durable pallet shelters.
After an hour and a half of discussion at the Saturday budget retreat, council members agreed — on what some deemed a compromise — to purchase 30 new ice fishing tents and 30 pallet shelters, which come equipped with heating elements and vary in size.
Some council members were in favor of purchasing only tents — Mayor Mike Coffman said having completed cold weather training in the military, he believed there are insulated tents that would suffice Aurora winters — while others favored purchasing 60 pallet shelters. The shelters could be flattened and stowed away when not in use.
The city already has 30 ice fishing tents that serve as shelter, but heavy snow and high winds did prove to be troublesome over the winter, according to Community Development Manager Jessica Prosser, who told council members Saturday that some of the tents did collapse over the winter because of the weather.
When colder weather arrives, the city will once again be limited on space due to the pandemic. Prosser said an overnight shelter in the city can accommodate 150 people, the day resource center can accommodate 75 people — down from its pre-pandemic numbers — and pallet shelters — which come in two size options, 64 square-feet and 100 square-feet — could potentially temporarily house up to 90 people.
The last census of people in Aurora experiencing homelessness counted 427 people in 2020, before the deep onset of the pandemic. The number itself is controversial, with homelessness activists saying it’s a vast undercount for a variety of reasons. Many point to “invisible” homeless people, staying with friends or family or subtly living between motel rooms and car seats. Others point to an uncounted increase in people camping in public as Denver and other communities “sweep” encampments outside of Aurora, driving them into the city.
Purchasing 60 pallet shelters would have cost the city approximately $718,000, which would be funded with federal dollars allocated to the city, according to city documents. Each ice fishing tent costs about $300, but heating elements are additional.
Staff said residents who attended an open house of shelter options earlier this year preferred the aesthetics of pallet shelters over tents.
“Frankly, I feel like we are undermining the effectiveness of actually addressing a problem that our constituents have been asking us to address for well over a year,” Councilmember Juan Marcano said during the meeting. “I mean, longer than that. I’s become a major issue really since COVID hit. And I don’t understand where the resistance is coming from. I think that staff has laid out an excellent rationale for their proposals… I think our constituents have reached out and let us know. I think we got decent participation.
“And I still would honestly really like to understand for the folks who haven’t spoken up why they’re against the palette shelters, given that they address a lot of the safety concerns, and that folks seem to be more receptive to accepting services, if that’s what they’re going to be able to move into instead of just another kind of tent,” Marcano said.
Council members Dave Gruber, Marsha Berzins, Francoise Bergan and Curtis Gardner joined Coffman in originally supporting the purchase of 60 tents and no pallet shelters. Any proposal needs the support of six members. The hour-and-a-half debate echoed that of Coffman’s urban camping ban proposal, which failed on a tied vote multiple times due to a vacant council seat earlier this summer.
Berzins suggested the 30 tents, 30 pallet shelters as a compromise to the impasse. It passed unanimously.
The final cost for the tents and shelter pallets wasn’t immediately available to the council, but will be incorporated into a final budget, which will come before council for a final vote later this fall.