AURORA | A ban on urban camping pitched by Mayor Mike Coffman is up for a vote again, splitting Aurora City Council members on whether a ban would keep residents safe or unfairly target the city’s homeless.
As proponents and critics on city council trade contradicting charges about the effect of the legislation and some parts are undefined, city staff charged with implementing the measure did not provide The Sentinel with details about bill as of Friday despite repeated requests.
For six months, Coffman’s proposal was shelved, after failing on a tied vote in August. It has since been revived and came before the new, majority-conservative council for debate on Feb. 7, where council progressives blasted it as unnecessary and cruel.
The lack of a ban didn’t stop the city from sweeping nearly 80 encampments in 2021, according to homelessness programs manager Lana Dalton.
A memorandum outlining the city’s current policy on sweeps enumerates dozens of laws and regulations that the city believes could be used to break up encampments on public property. Grounds for abatement include everything from open fires and loose hypodermic needles to discarded clothing, uneaten food and “unsanitary” bedding.
As for private property, the definition of “trespassing” in Aurora’s municipal code addresses remaining on a private and public property without the owner’s permission or the legal right to be there, city officials have long maintained.
Critics of the measure have repeatedly said the measure does not detail how homeless campers would be removed from unauthorized public camps and what would happen to them if the voluntarily move on.
City officials declined to answer a list of questions about those details and did not say what powers the ban would give the city that current laws don’t already afford.
A companion resolution, also sponsored by Coffman, 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.”
The city declined to say how additional shelter would be created to accommodate the city’s unhoused population. No funds would be allocated specifically alongside the resolution. The ban, however, as written, could not be enforced unless there were shelter resources available for those who would be displaced.
Coffman indicated in an email that his proposal could expedite the process of abating camps on private land. The measure would give campers at least 72 hours notice before a camp is swept, which is consistent with the city’s current policy.
“Under current law, a property owner has to file a complaint and wait for (the Aurora Police Department) to ticket the campers before they can be removed,” the mayor wrote. “There is no limit to how long the process can take between the filing of the complaint, the campers being ticketed, and an abatement occurring.”
It’s unclear from the bill and city hall response how the proposed measure would carry out removal from campsites.
In response to the question of how shelter might be created to support the companion resolution, Coffman wrote that the city had “given me a number but since they are not releasing it until after the proposal passes, I will not release it.” It’s unclear why city staffers and Coffman would withhold the information until after the bill is approved, or if Coffman was referring to a projected cost or needed shelter spots so the ban could be activated.
Dalton has told the council that there are up to 285 beds available among all of the city’s shelter resources, or as many as 360 beds during winter weather.
In 2020, the last time Aurora’s unsheltered and sheltered homeless population was counted on behalf of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 427 people were said to be sleeping on the streets, in emergency shelters and in transitional housing. Service providers generally consider HUD surveys to be an undercount.
The ban might not expand the city’s legal authority necessarily, but both supporters and opponents of the ban believe it would lay the groundwork for a more aggressive posture toward camps.
Staffers have previously said the city has limited camp abatements during the COVID-19 pandemic to situations that pose an immediate health or safety risk.
“What we’ll push for on council is consistent enforcement,” said Councilmember Dustin Zvonek, who spoke up in favor of the ban on Feb. 7. “Having these encampments, whether they’re behind homes or next to the highway, they’re a significant public safety issue.”
Zvonek said irregular enforcement of Denver’s camping ban was to blame for the prevalence of encampments in that city and insisted a ban would push campers toward services that could ultimately help them escape homelessness.
Councilmember Alison Coombs, on the other hand, questioned how serious the sponsors of the ban were about connecting the homeless with services when there likely aren’t enough beds to accommodate the city’s homeless population to begin with.
“My concern is we’re going to cycle people through a small number of shelter beds over, and over, and over again,” she said. “These bans ruin people’s lives, take their stuff and make it harder for them to get housing. … It doesn’t seem like it actually changes the powers that the city has, but it takes away staff discretion.”
Coffman also wrote that his proposal “applies equally to all public and private properties and requires the city to take action in abating encampments.”
Campers could be arrested or face fines up to $2,650 if they fail to leave a campsite after the notice period is up, according to Assistant City Attorney Tim Joyce.
Aurora’s City Council will vote on the ban during their next meeting, which will begin at 6:30 p.m. on Monday at the Aurora Municipal Center, located at 15151 E. Alameda Parkway.
At least one activist group, the Party for Socialism and Liberation, has announced it is rallying the public to attend the meeting and speak in protest against the ban. Information about participating remotely and in-person is available at www.auroragov.org/city_hall/mayor___city_council/council_meetings.