AURORA | Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman is moving forward with a revised version of an ordinance banning unauthorized camping in the city despite not having enough city council votes to pass it into law.
He’ll need at least six votes on the 10-member council to make his proposal law and apparently didn’t have them at a city council study session Monday night.
Coffman says his updated ban simultaneously echos the status quo but is also a significant improvement to the current system of abating homeless encampments. Council members Juan Marcano, Angela Lawson, Alison Coombs, Allison Hiltz and Crystal Murillo signaled no support for moving the proposal to the council floor for a formal vote.
Coffman said he would like to see a recorded vote anyway. The veteran congressman and first-term mayor created a controversy earlier this year when he pretended to be homeless and spent a week sleeping in homeless encampments in the region. His remarks, made to a Denver TV reporter coordinating with the event, drew fire from homeless advocates. Coffman told a reporter that the majority of people he encountered were substance abusers who chose sleeping in encampments rather than shelters in order to accommodate their addictions.
Since then, he has worked to propose legislation to eradicate the growing number of visible public camps. His newest proposal would allow city staff to clear a homeless encampment even if it doesn’t pose a threat to public health or safety, which is how the city currently decides to “sweep” a camp.
“Unauthorized camping is unauthorized camping,” Coffman said throughout the discussion.
The revised proposal does not come with fines or penalties for unauthorized camping itself, but if a person disobeyed an order to leave the unauthorized site, they could be fined or jailed for violating the order.
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Critics of such measures, including local jail and law enforcement officials, say fines and jail time imposed on homeless people for unauthorized camping essentially “criminalizes” them, compounding the problems and using public resources for their incarceration.
Tim Joyce, an assistant city attorney, told council members Monday that camping scofflaws ordered to move from camps during sweeps have not resisted and faced jail time or fines.
People living in encampments would be given a 72-hour notice instead of a seven-day notice, like they currently are, to abandon an unlawful camping site, according to the ordinance. In order for the city to clear an encampment, there would have to be space available at a sanctioned site elsewhere in the city.
A newly-opened safe camping site pilot program sponsored by the city hit capacity on Thursday, Homelessness Programs Manager Lana Dalton told the council. It houses about 40 people.
It’s unclear what kind of resources would be needed to create enough sanctioned city space for every person currently living in what Coffman’s proposal would consider an illegal camping site. There isn’t a clear number of encampments currently in the city, but Dalton did point to the number of service requests by people experiencing homelessness that the city has received this year versus last year related to encampments. In 2020, the city received 307 requests. So far this year it’s received 841.
Dalton said the city is currently undergoing a land survey and talking to different faith communities to scope out possible additional sites. Costs would vary depending on the type of site, she said.
Opponents of the proposal said Monday night they wanted to see policies that focus on the root cause of why people are camping.
“What I see happening here is we’re effectively…just codifying the existing procedures,” Marcano said. “We are removing the flexibility of staff from how to address these issues. And I understand that we’re getting a lot of complaints about you know, sanitation, and things like that. I get them, too, as you know. And I’m also concerned about those issues.
“But we’re going to be, again, just codifying something, just to, I guess, say we did something,” Marcano said. “My real issue with this is I don’t see how anything fundamentally changes.”
Murillo added that she believes the ordinance is addressing symptoms rather than systemic causes of the encampments.
“You can edit it all you want, but to me there’s no way to get around the fact that… it’s a wholly separate process from the work that we’ve been doing for the past three plus years. So I don’t support it in any version,” she said.
The ordinance is expected to come to a city council vote later this month. If votes remain the same as they were Monday night, the proposal would fail as a result of a tied vote. In Aurora, the mayor is permitted to vote on council legislation to make or break a tie.