Colfax library employees say MLK Jr. branch overrun with drugs, violence and filth

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This story has been updated with comments from Ward I Councilmember Crystal Murillo. 

AURORA | Employees at Aurora’s Martin Luther King Jr. Library say the branch’s campus has become enveloped by violence and squalid conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic, prompting meetings with city officials but little change.

The public library campus and adjacent plaza, near the intersection of East Colfax Avenue and Elmira Street, has long been a gathering place for area residents. But two employees of the library told the Sentinel the area has become increasingly dangerous since May. The staffers, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution jeopardizing their jobs, say they’ve regularly witnessed violent crime and open drug use, while employees and patrons are harassed by a recent crowd of aggressive, possibly homeless people.

“I think at this point, it has to be broken up,” one employee said of the congregation. “It’s their territory, and we’re just visiting, is what it’s become.”

That employee said they’ve personally witnessed violence, including a rape and a beatdown that left another woman unconscious. People hang out all day, sometimes stealing lightbulbs to make crack or meth pipes. Others  have built fires underneath metal park benches as makeshift grills, according to one library employee. They’ve moved furniture onto the campus. Feces, vomit and drug paraphernalia line the outside of the library and adjoining Fletcher Plaza.

“That staff has seen some gnarly things outside the window,” said city Homelessness Program Director Shelley McKittrick.

Some city officials described the situation as a homeless encampment, which has netted little police attention during the pandemic.  It’s possible the situation is part of a general uptick in more people without homes coming to Aurora in recent months. But the two library employees said it’s not clear who doesn’t have a home and who simply gathers to do drugs and loiter at the library.

But the result, they say, is that staffers are afraid to leave the building, and patrons are afraid to come in.

According to visitation data provided by Midori Clark, the city’s library and cultural services director, the Martin Luther King Jr. branch experienced the second-largest decline in visitors this year through August compared to the same period in 2019.

All branches saw steep declines in visitation because of COVID-19 and closures, Clark said, but the Central Library saw the worst slump. That branch had a 73% decline in visitors during that time period.

The two employees of the East Colfax Avenue library say they’ve implored supervisors and city officials to protect them. They want the campus cleaned and the crowd broken up, or — at least — a larger police presence to deter crime.

In response, officials from the police department, city manager’s office, library and parks departments have come to the library for cross-departmental meetings.

Clark said the city might put up more signs in the area and possibly station a case worker there to connect people with social services. But she said that nothing had been set in stone. Nancy Sheffield, interim director of housing and community services, said the city might increase security, too.

“We hope to have more to announce soon,” Sheffield said in a statement to the Sentinel.

Councilmember Crystal Murillo, who represents the neighborhood, said the situation represents “a systemic problem in a lack of housing and access to other resources.” She said the city council is working to facilitate more affordable housing in particular.

“We don’t want to criminalize homelessness and as a city we need to treat people with dignity and respect,” Murillo said in an email. “That means we need to involve the correct professionals who can help meet mental health needs, housing needs and other needs from our community.”

For the two library employees, soon can’t come fast enough.

“We’re really not asking that much,” the second employee said. “No one is taking accountability. Everyone is saying, that’s not my job, that’s not my job.”

That person said trash is being collected more often, but nothing substantial changed since the cross-departmental meetings, which included one at the library in early September, according to Clark.

According to the library workers, the situation spiraled out of control in May. The city had shuttered all public libraries and switched to a curbside delivery programs to help contain the new coronavirus.

They say more people began congregating at the vacant library campus and Fletcher Plaza to drink alcohol and take hard drugs. Since then, needles and human waste have littered the campus. The second employee described the scene as a never-ending party involving aggressive people and drug use. People have diverted electricity from the library branch and, at one point, set up a barber shop, they said. Drug users make purchases and then later nod off on park benches.

McKittrick, the homelessness program director, said city staff and resource providers including Tr-County Health set up an outreach event with people at Fletcher Plaza in July. Staff gave out free food and COVID-19 tests while connecting people with resources. Aurora Mental Health outreach staff were also present.

She said in an email the personnel “engaged with folks about keeping the area clean and not blocking doorways…and that the city would be coming to abate/clean the area as the Library prepared to open.”

But the two employees said they continued to witness serious crimes and squalid conditions.

While speaking with the Sentinel, one employee broke down in tears while describing violent scenes, saying the situation continued to devolve after the outreach event.

“Almost any kind of violence you can imagine, I have witnessed at the library,” one employee said.

The employee recounted witnessing a woman being beaten by three others to the point of unconsciousness; another woman chasing people with a hatchet; a stabbing; a rape; and the harassment of area children, whose bike tires were purposefully slashed. The person said police rarely return their phone calls, and officials simply let the situation persist.

Clark, the library director, described the scene as a homeless encampment. She referred the Sentinel to city policy on outdoor camping. During the COVID-19 pandemic, city authorities will only break up encampments on public land if they become too large, prominent or chaotic, according to officials.

But the library employees aren’t sure whether it’s an encampment. If people do sleep on the campus, they usually aren’t in tents, the two employees said.

The second employee said the library crowd swelled after Denver authorities dispersed a major encampment at Lincoln Park, near the state Capitol building, in late July. The employee thinks Denver locals simply traveled up East Colfax Avenue to hang out at the library. That new crop was more hardened and aggressive, the person said. They pushed out the regular homeless residents who were friendly and would check out books.

It’s a phenomenon some homelessness service providers and officials said they’ve seen in the city at large.

“Obviously, we’re in the ‘hood. We know who we serve, and we really care about these people,” the second employee said. “But since the sweeps in Denver, we’re attracting people who might even not be homeless, who are maybe just doing drugs, it seems like.”

McKittrick said the East Colfax corridor is home to many drug-addicted and alcoholic people who might have reliable shelter, but might not, depending on the day. People flit in and out of motels. She said the situation there is somewhat different than homeless encampments along the Highline Canal trail, Havana Street and other corridors where people pitch their tents.

She heard that new people arrived at Fletcher Plaza who “haven’t come with good intentions,” and were “far more aggressive, far more destructive to property.” But she emphasized that it’s hard to know where people come from.

Clark and the two library employees agreed the Martin Luther King Jr. branch is indispensable.

“It’s such a great library, and it’s not the most trouble-free library, but in many ways it’s the most important library in our system,” Clark said.

The library is a fixture in a low-income neighborhood, they said. Staff provide services including internet and computers to people who don’t have technology in their own homes. People can check out books and movies to enjoy while stuck inside during a pandemic. Immigrant and homeless residents come in for help with essential paperwork, the second employee said.

“We’re here to serve the most vulnerable in our city. And typically, it seems like they don’t care,” the person said of city officials. “It’s just not fair.”