If you haven’t noticed fewer homeless people camping along Aurora streets, in vacant lots and across the region’s vast open spaces, it’s because the city’s new much-ballyhooed ban on homeless camping is only moving people around and not into shelters or out of the city, according to homeless outreach workers.
Denver, which has had a similar ban for about a decade, also has the same, persistent problem with teams of tents in large and small encampments scattered completely across that city.
It’s been just over two months into enforcing Aurora’s nascent effort to evict homeless people camping in public places, but what experts warned Aurora about appears to already be the case: Banning homeless camping doesn’t stop it.
The organizations and people who work with and look after the thousands of people in Aurora living in their cars or on the streets report that the ranks of homeless people are, indeed, moving when threatened with tickets or jail.
They’re not, however, moving into shelters, homes or even a new city. They’re just moving along to another place to pitch a tent or create cardboard and tarp shelters.
“These campers are not moving on to Denver by any means,” Mile High Behavioral Health CEO Bob Dorshimer told The Sentinel this week, adding that outreach workers in the region have been able to reconnect with ousted campers at new locations. “They’re finding alternative places in Aurora to camp.”
It isn’t that the city wasn’t warned that a ban on homeless camping would both just harass homeless people into moving somewhere nearby. The city was also alerted that, even worse, making their homelessness a criminal offense and jailing them, at great expense to taxpayers, will only end with turning them back to their community to continue being homeless, and now with a criminal record.
Fortunately, the city, reportedly, hasn’t even written a ticket to any homeless camper. When notified, they just move on, and not to a shelter or permanent home.
Expert after expert, study after study opposed the slim majority on city council supporting Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman’s insistence that a ban would make a difference in the problem here. The repeated advisements against it were amid almost the same ban having made no difference in Denver, Boulder or any other city using bans to solve or even mitigate the growing national scourge of homelessness.
It isn’t as if Coffman’s already failing program was a no-harm, no-foul, proposition for residents, businesses and taxpayers, tormenting only the wretched poor, often addicted and mostly mentally ill people without homes. The city estimates running the bans and other low-level programs alone could cost up to $4 million a year.
Aurora has serious money flowing into several directions and programs, including those that provide Pallet shelters to people, safe spaces for tents and cars, and money to help operate the Aurora Day Resource Center and the Comitis Crisis Center.
The financial picture is even more grim in Denver. A recent story by the Denver Post’s Elise Schmelzer on the Denver Street Enforcement Team, a non-police-directed homeless camping ban program in Denver, revealed that that project alone costs Denver taxpayers about $1.5 million a year.
Homeless activists and camping ban proponents alike admit the Denver program has not diminished the level of homelessness plaguing that city, but instead it has just shuffled homeless campers from one site to another.
It’s an astoundingly cruel and poor use of hundreds of millions of tax dollars between Aurora and Denver.
Now, Aurora is committed to this wasteful and brutish campaign, but it doesn’t address the justified expectation by everyone who lives in Aurora and Denver that local governments ensure a safe community for everyone.
Thousands of people without homes camping on sidewalks, along parks, trails and behind stores is not safe for those in the camps or the rest of the community.
Above all, it’s tragic that, as a society, we would ignore and even harass people who are homeless for whatever the reason. Much of this persecution comes from “tough on crime, “bootstraps” and “welfare queen” mythologies, wrongfully insisting that the bulk of people in the metroplex “choose” to be homeless and actually enjoy their debilitating drug or alcohol addiction or untreated mental illness and should therefore be treated as annoying, self-indulgent reprobates.
Spending any time at all with people suffering from homelessness or those who regularly work with them paints a much more accurate and complicated picture of the problem. More than anything, it’s a problem of poverty. There’s no shortage of middle class and wealthy drug and alcohol addicts who have homes. The difference being, they have the means to keep their homes, for now.
Denver and Aurora, and other metro towns and counties as well, continue to spend hundreds of millions, or even billions, of dollars doing little or nothing to either help the bulk of homeless people regain their footing or mitigate, let alone end, the growing problem of people camping in public places.
Instead, the region should look to organizations such as the Denver Regional Council of Governments to create a cooperative, comprehensive approach to researching and addressing the problem.
The consortium should look to places like Houston and even other nations for ways to permanently end the issue of mass homelessness. Success will come by finding ways to actually reduce the number of people who have no home and no alternative but to turn to camping in public places, not by shuffling them around.