Between the golf club at Heather Ridge and Interstate 225, Erin Kay and Mikhail Smith pause to introduce themselves to the residents of a small tent encampment nestled against the chain link fence bordering the highway.
They’re there that morning to warn the inhabitants that the encampment has been flagged for abatement in the near future, and to ask if the people living there need anything from a pair of warm socks to information about how to enter a drug treatment program.
The duo work as street outreach workers for Mile High Behavioral Healthcare, and from Tuesday through Saturday each week drive around Aurora talking with the city’s homeless residents. On a slow day, they might speak to just two or three people, or as many as 25 when it gets busy.
Just about every day they’re out, their big, white van gets flagged down by someone asking for help, either for themselves or for a loved one who has become homeless.
“It’s a lot of sad stories,” Smith said.
But it’s also a way to help people who need it the most. Along with giving out food, water, drug testing kits and other small items, the street outreach team also works to connect people to treatment programs, shelter and work opportunities — whatever they need to get out of homelessness for good.
“I love this job because it’s hopeful,” Kay said. She knows what the people they interact with are going through because she lived it herself — Kay struggled with an addiction and was homeless for 10 years before going to college to get a degree in social work. The work the duo does can be slow going, but it’s also rewarding in the way that few other things can be.
That morning, they end up giving one of the people living in the encampment a ride to the Aurora Day Resource Center so that he can take a shower and get something to eat. He needs to get a new ID, and along the way they make plans to pick him up again later to help him get his documentation in order.
A lot of what Kay and Mikhail do on a regular basis is visit encampments that have been flagged for upcoming abatement so that people have a heads up and can hopefully get their possessions in order and clear out on their own.
Where those people go after abatement has long been a source of concern and contention among Aurora lawmakers.
Starting April 30, Aurora’s homeless population will officially be prohibited from camping without permission on public property, signaling a more aggressive enforcement posture from the city, according to elected leaders.
City officials said details on when and how the new law will be implemented are forthcoming.
While the city clears unauthorized camps now — close to 80 in 2021, according to Lana Dalton, who recently left her position as Aurora’s homelessness programs manager — elected leaders say the ban would lay the groundwork for the city to be more consistent about forcing campers to move elsewhere.
The ban’s supporters are hopeful that “elsewhere” will be city-sanctioned shelter space — the language of the ban requires the city to have enough shelter space available to accommodate everyone in a camp before that camp can be swept.
That requirement is also a feature of the city’s existing abatement policy. The camping ban in large part codifies the city’s current policy on sweeping encampments.
But while officials have said the city exercised discretion during the COVID-19 pandemic, targeting camps that posed an immediate health or safety risk but leaving others intact, City Council members say the new camping ban is meant to apply uniformly to all homeless campers.
72 hours to vacate
Campers would be given at least 72 hours’ notice before being forced to leave, which is also consistent with the city’s existing policy. If they refuse to abandon their campsite after the notice period has expired, they may be arrested or fined up to $2,650.
Opponents have pointed out that, based on estimates of the city’s homeless population and shelter space, there may be hundreds more homeless people than there are beds. At least in theory, if there aren’t enough beds to hold everyone in a camp, the ban would be unenforceable.
Days away from implementing the new ban, city officials declined to answer any questions about how the ban would be carried out. City spokesman Ryan Luby wrote in an April 21 email that “staff are still working on the implementation process and are still actively preparing an update for Council on May 2.”
“They will not have anything to provide before then,” he wrote.
In February, as legislation was being created, city officials said then they did not have details about the ban. Among the unanswered questions was how additional shelter would be created to accomplish the goals of a companion resolution directing 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.”
Since then, city staffers have presented some information to city lawmakers about the ban and about the shelter question specifically. The council in March indicated its support for turning the Aurora Day Resource Center into a year-round shelter, which city staffers said would cost $750,000 up front and $1.35 million on an ongoing annual basis.
They have yet to formally sign off on the expenditure, however, and Mile High Behavioral Healthcare CEO Bob Dorshimer said the city is currently reviewing a “punch-list” of items needed before the year-round shelter would be operational.
The mezzanine level of the ARDC would be turned into space for bunk beds for women displaced from encampments, and part of the ground floor will be used for beds for men, Dorshimer said. They would also make upgrades such as replacing the dog runs that used to exist outside for the homeless who bring their pets with them. Mile High also has plans to rehire a nurse position that is currently vacant.
Staff would be on hand to help connect people who stay overnight due to abatement to Mile High’s other programs, such as job training and substance abuse treatment, Dorshimer said. It’s unclear how many will choose to take part.
The facility can currently accommodate about 75 people during a weather emergency. A 2021 survey of the city’s homeless residents undertaken on behalf of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development indicated at least 594 people were homeless in the city. Depending on weather conditions, the city may have fewer than half as many shelter beds available compared to the number of homeless people known to city officials.
On April 28, after this story was originally published, the City of Aurora issued a statement clarifying that it is not ready to enforce the ban on the 30th. They did not say when the new policies would be going into effect.
“While the effective date of the ordinance is April 30, those policies are still in development, so the city will continue to use its existing policy on camp abatement until new policies are in place,” the statement read in part. “As such, the city is not anticipating widespread issuance of notices or abatements to occur on April 30.”
“The city of Aurora remains committed to a compassionate and care-focused approach to balancing the needs and security of those experiencing homelessness with the concerns of community members and the need to maintain the safety and health of the city,” the statement said.
City Council members voted 6-5 March 28 to implement the ban, which Mayor Mike Coffman reintroduced earlier this year after it was shelved by a split council in August. The final version of the ban included amendments proposed by Councilmember Crystal Murillo, creating an annual reporting requirement and directing the city manager to come up with a policy for temporarily storing the belongings of displaced campers.
Coffman broke the tie in favor of the ban, which also earned the support of conservative council members Francoise Bergan, Curtis Gardner, Danielle Jurinsky, Steve Sundberg and Dustin Zvonek. Angela Lawson and progressives Alison Coombs, Juan Marcano, Ruben Medina and Murillo voted in opposition.
Dispute over what’s good for the city, homeless people
While opponents generally said the ban would criminalize homelessness and do little to get people into housing, supporters said it would push the homeless to engage with service providers and address public health problems associated with camps.
“The top priority of any local government should be public safety,” Zvonek said shortly before the council’s first vote to introduce the ban at the end of February. “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.”
“I want people to access services and not to be out there isolated,” Coffman told The Sentinel in March. “I think it’s important they come to a shelter option.”
Organizations that help the homeless in Aurora told The Sentinel that they are not taking formal positions on the ban, though representatives expressed uncertainty about how it would impact demand for services and their clients.
“Right now, we’re kind of guessing what will happen,” said Kristen Baluyot, the Salvation Army’s social services director for the Denver metropolitan area.
The Salvation Army manages at least 60 Pallet shelters — small, prefabricated housing units — between locations next to its warehouse on Peoria Street and alongside Restoration Christian Fellowship on East Sixth Avenue. The organization also provides food boxes for community members and offers housing assistance through its Housing Now program.
Baluyot said the Pallet shelters are currently at capacity, and she anticipates demand for that shelter space will only increase. As of April 26, the organization reported 86 people on its waitlist.
“Our primary goal with those safe outdoor spaces is for them to be there for as short a time as possible and then get them into permanent, stable housing,” she said. “In Aurora, there’s really only a few sheltering options. … If you’re looking at the numbers in the context of this camping ban, there’s not sufficient shelter space for all of the people who are camping to move into shelter.”
She said service providers have also considered the possibility that the enactment of the ban in Aurora will push more people toward Denver. Derek Woodbury, communications director for Denver’s Department of Housing Stability, said in an email that his city would “continue to coordinate with the City of Aurora on our regional approaches to make homelessness rare, brief and one-time.”
“We continue to monitor (the) presence of large encampments across the city and can assess for any increase in locations near the Aurora border,” he wrote.
Denver and nearby jurisdictions such as Parker and Centennial also have camping bans on the books.
Andy Anderson of the Town of Parker said when asked if his city had analyzed the possible impacts of the Aurora ban that Parker is taking part in a Douglas County initiative to gather data on homelessness and that it would continue to cooperate with neighboring jurisdictions to address rising homelessness regardless of the ban’s consequences.
Allison Wittern of Centennial said her city had not undertaken any analysis of the Aurora ban, though a March 28 news article in the Centennial Citizen cautioned that the ban could displace people into that city. In Greenwood Village, spokeswoman Melissa Gallegos said the city wasn’t anticipating any impacts, since it is relatively small and has limited services.
Cathy Alderman of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless said she thought the ban was likely to push Aurora’s homeless residents across jurisdictional boundaries and that she did not know what new services were being created if demand was to increase.
“As Aurora becomes less welcoming and less helpful to its residents experiencing homelessness, they’re probably going to go to other cities and counties to get resources,” she said. She has spoken out against the ban.
While the Salvation Army does not have a local street outreach team, Baluyot said sweeps have the potential to sever ties between service organizations and their homeless clients.
“It can set street outreach teams back significantly from their outcomes or even from getting people to engage in shelter,” she said.
She also warned that unpaid fines can create an obstacle between the homeless and housing, calling fines that stem from unauthorized camping “prohibitive and punitive.”
Baluyot said a person who worked at the Aurora Salvation Army locations reported seeing more people interested in shelter and services in the run-up to the ban, and Dorshimer said his organization is also planning for an increased demand for services.
Dorshimer and his organization did not take an official position on the ban. The CEO stressed the need for congregate and non-congregate forms of shelter to be available to effectively accommodate people affected by a ban.
“You need to implement a variety of services in order to make the plan successful,” he said. A subsequent phase of the expansion of sheltering at the ADRC could see Pallet shelters set up for families.
Erin Ralston — clinical director for access, homeless, and residential services for Aurora Mental Health Center — said her agency did not anticipate its services or processes would change because of the ban. She also acknowledged the deficit of shelter space in the area.
AuMHC has teams that do outreach and help the recently housed transition out of homelessness. They also offer drop-in services, therapy and case management for homeless clients as well as rehousing services.
The agency’s new Acute Care Center, which spokeswoman Lori MacKenzie said is now slated to break ground in March 2023 and be built out in September 2024, will serve the homeless as well as the general public with its crisis stabilization and detox units.
Ralston and Baluyot both said their agencies are prepared to do whatever they can to continue offering services regardless of the legislative landscape.
“We’ll be out there rain or shine,” Ralston said. “We are hopeful that there will be referrals and people will continue to get connected.”
“Our goal is to end homelessness one person at a time,” said Baluyot. “We will continue to do everything we can to support those experiencing homelessness.”
The reason why people want to be in public sleeping together is it’s safe. And if you let people live in public communities, it builds the political pressure to solve this problem more permanently… If you allow people to be harassed, and raped, and murdered in the shadows, you can pretend you don’t have a problem. That’s what it sounds like Aurora is planning to do. — Tony Robinson, an associate professor of political science at CU Denver
Experts say bans sound good but end badly
Researchers referred by the University of Colorado’s Denver Campus and the Anschutz Medical Campus were openly skeptical of the ban, saying camping bans have not been proven to improve the lives of the homeless and often accomplish the opposite.
“It has had no effect whatsoever improving the lives of homeless people, moving them into shelter, connecting them with resources or reducing the fact that people are sleeping outside,” said Tony Robinson, an associate professor of political science at CU Denver whose research includes the topics of affordable housing, poverty and homelessness.
He said camping bans force many homeless people to choose between relocating to more secluded areas, where they may be at a higher risk of being assaulted or harassed, or sleeping in congregate shelters, which don’t typically accept pets and may not be suitable for those with severe mental health problems.
Scott Harpin — an associate professor of nursing at Anschutz who has worked with homeless populations for around 25 years, including doing medical outreach work in Aurora — said there is limited research on the effectiveness of camping bans but that he has seen Denver’s ban work positively to connect people with resources in only a “small proportion” of cases.
“I understand why people would want a camping ban. I like my city, and I want it to look pretty. But this is a human rights issue,” Harpin said. “It just moves people around. It doesn’t help solve the issue in any way.”
The researchers said Aurora is part of a nationwide pattern of cities enacting camping bans to address homelessness. They were also critical of Denver’s ban, though Harpin also said that Denver was one of the first major cities in the country to partner with churches to create government-sanctioned camping sites.
Regarding public health hazards such as human waste, Harpin suggested cities set up portable restrooms and similar facilities rather than break up those campsites using a ban.
But he and Robinson also said that cities should work toward more affordable and accessible housing as a way of permanently reducing the homeless population. Robinson also said cities should be looking into setting up more designated camping sites and “tiny home” communities.
“The reason why people want to be in public sleeping together is it’s safe,” Robinson said. “And if you let people live in public communities, it builds the political pressure to solve this problem more permanently… If you allow people to be harassed, and raped, and murdered in the shadows, you can pretend you don’t have a problem. That’s what it sounds like Aurora is planning to do.”
Harpin said bans also tend to waste the time of police. Former Police Chief Vanessa Wilson said she was uncomfortable dedicating police resources to enforcing a camping ban.
“As the chief of police, I have been very clear that I do not want to be a part of enforcing this ban,” Wilson said during a hearing about the original, failed bill in August. “ … Right now we’re doing this because we don’t have any other options, but I think as a city we can do better.”
Following Wilson’s firing earlier this month, previous APD chief Dan Oates is slated to take the reins as interim chief in May.
Dorshimer said that Oates “will enforce the law” but spoke highly of his support for the homeless, saying that he was involved in the formation of Aurora’s cold weather outreach team.
“This all started because of Dan,” Dorshimer said.
Oates declined to speak with The Sentinel about the camping ban. Details of how police will handle their role in enforcement was not released.
“The police at Civic Center Park are some of the most caring folks,” Harpin said in the context of Denver’s ban. “I think it also puts them in a tough spot.”
Last week, Coffman said on social media that he spoke to Gov. Jared Polis about speeding up the abatement process on Colorado Department of Transportation property in Aurora as well as state owned property along Cherry Creek State Park.
“The current process is way too slow, and the abatements are so infrequent, that it encourages those staying in the encampments along I-225 to return knowing that they can stay there for weeks before another abatement occurs,” Coffman said in a post.
Jason Clay, a spokesman for Colorado Parks & Wildlife, said the park conducts regular patrols within its boundaries and contacts those camping without permission to offer information about resources and advise them to leave. Eventually, a camp may be swept by staff and, if necessary, a biohazard team.
While he said there “may be increases” in unauthorized camping because of the ban, he added that the park “has seen these in the past based on a variety of circumstances.”
“We have managed to be adaptive to many issues facing the park and will continue to collaborate with a variety of partners, resources, and constituents to employ best practices in attempts to serve the mission of CPW and provide the best services to the public,” Clay wrote in an email.
Coffman said Polis seemed willing to shorten the abatement notice window from seven days to 72 hours, and that he would consider not requiring permission from CDOT before Aurora does an abatement on its property as well as lifting the reimbursement cap of $75,000 a year for abatements.
Polis spokesperson Conor Cahill confirmed Coffman’s description of the call and said that the governor wants to reduce red tape to allow the city to implement its plans.
“Local governments and municipalities need to meet this moment, and the state wants to help them do it,” Cahill said in an email.