AURORA | Even as the council’s liberal minority slammed it as a cruel and ineffective use of city resources, a proposed ban on urban camping introduced by Mayor Mike Coffman cleared the first hurdle of a study session Monday night.
The mayor and his supporters on council say the proposal is an effective way of discouraging camping along streets, in parks and under bridges, which they characterized as a threat to the health of campers and the public.
“This approach is compassionate to those experiencing homelessness and fair to our residents, and neighborhoods, and businesses in our city,” Coffman said. “I believe that to be cruel to those experiencing homelessness is to do nothing.”
Opposing lawmakers — including council members Juan Marcano, Crystal Murillo and Alison Coombs — called the bill “theater” and said it virtually mirrors existing law without offering any solutions. They blasted the ban as useless and inhumane, given that it doesn’t provide specific additional shelter options for the city’s homeless.
The law would give the city the ability to disband unauthorized encampments on public as well as private property, which up to this point has been accomplished using a mosaic of existing laws.
Homeless campers already can be forced from private property under existing laws that prohibit trespassing. A collection of other laws can be invoked to break up encampments on public land, according to city officials. Especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, however, the city has purposely limited sweeps of encampments only to situations that pose a pressing health or safety risk.
Coffman’s proposed ban would give campers at least 72 hours’ notice to abandon their campsite or risk being jailed or fined up to $2,650, according to Assistant City Attorney Tim Joyce.
The ban could only be enforced if adequate city shelter space was available, which is also the case under the city’s existing policy. Coffman said Monday that campers could be offered as of yet uncreated “safe” camping space with access to restroom facilities, food and other services as an alternative to a shelter bed or motel voucher. Current rules also generally require a minimum of 72 hours’ notice before a camp can be abated.
Jessica Prosser, director of Aurora’s Housing and Community Services Department, said the city’s shelter space is mostly filled up as is. Homelessness programs manager Lana Dalton said there are as many as 285 beds between all of the city’s shelter resources, or up to 360 during winter weather.
“We can usually accommodate a few people,” Prosser told the council when asked how sweeps are handled currently. “If we’re doing additional abatements more often for larger camps, we would probably be in a situation where we would need additional shelter.”
After Coffman said he believed the majority of Aurora residents were “fed up” and wanted to see the city do something about encampments, Marcano said he agreed but doubted the ban would have a positive impact.
“I would not consider this action. This is political theater with a fiscal note, at best,” he said.
After Marcano accused Coffman and some other council members of misrepresenting the ban to the public, he was warned not to “attack” other council members by Councilmember Francoise Bergan, and Coffman shot back that Marcano was “mixed up” concerning opinions and facts.
In response to a question from Murillo, Deputy Police Chief Darin Parker of the Aurora Police Department said chief Vanessa Wilson still does not want to dedicate resources to enforcing a ban.
“The head of our police department is saying we do not have the capacity … and yet, when it’s opportunistic or convenient, we don’t want to support that opinion,” Murillo said. “What is the point of this? We already have procedures and processes that address circumstances and situations similar to this, so this feels like a non-ordinance only for show.”
Homelessness experts say citations, in addition to arrests, can contribute to homeless people becoming trapped in a cycle of run-ins with the law when fines go unpaid and court dates are missed.
A resolution accompanying the camping ban 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.” No funds, however, would be allocated specifically alongside the resolution.
Bergan and Councilmember Dustin Zvonek both spoke up in favor of Coffman’s proposal, saying that discouraging homeless people from camping served both the homeless and the rest of the community by, at least in theory, directing campers into other forms of shelter.
“People are already camping in tents in horrible conditions,” Bergan said, arguing the city needed to “be respectful of our residents who are our neighbors and also our businesses” when mulling the future of the unhoused.
Coombs, Marcano, Murillo and Ruben Medina said they didn’t support the ban moving forward to a regular meeting, which was not enough opposition to actually halt it. The council plans to vote on the proposed ban and companion resolution Feb. 14. While council members will attend the meeting in person, Bergan said the public will not be allowed in chambers.