PERRY: Aurora lawmakers smoke their credibility trying to fry panhandling on the streets

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In this 2017 file photo a homeless man, panhandles in the median strip on a street (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

Few things for so many generations have generated as much mythology as the plight of people without homes.

Our notions of the homeless are a collage of images painted by the Bible, Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp, Red Skelton’s Freddie the Freeloader and The Aurora City Council.

The dilemma of homelessness and its mischaracterization has been around as long as Aurora and Denver.

Homeless people have long been dismissed by community leaders as tiresome vagrants. They attract so much attention now only because so many people, including city lawmakers, actually see so many homeless people.

Thousands of people camping on Front Range streets and highways, panhandling at busy intersections, can’t be ignored even by those who try.

A little over a year ago, Mayor Mike Coffman infamously pretended to be a homeless veteran, mingling with real homeless people, and dubiously not saying who he really was or what he was actually doing.

In a — literally — made-for-TV moment, he told a Channel 4 reporter, who was in on the ruse, that homeless people are mostly drug addicts and alcoholics. He said they choose their miserable lives of addiction on the streets.

For Coffman, and so many like him, homelessness is a problem created by a lack of willpower, sloth and bad choices.

Since then, Aurora lawmakers have been in a tug-of-war over the complex reality of homelessness and creating “solutions” based on wishes, mythology and the same bad ideas by hundreds of decision makers that have come before them.

A slim majority of the city council, backing Coffman’s off-with-their-tents scheme, have now begun celebrating Aurora shuffling homeless campers around the city, as workers evict homeless people from their visible, illicit campsites.

Local experts and activists who work with hundreds of campers in the region have confirmed that in almost every case of a swept camp, the campers simply find a new place nearby to pitch their tents.

It’s turning out just as city and regional experts warned that it would. It’s the same way in Denver and every other city that tries to ban homeless campers as a way to end homeless camping.

With so much success, the council conservatives who brought you whack-a-camper are now eager to tackle intersection panhandlers.

Here, the city is up against a long history of court decisions making it clear: Don’t go there. Despite urgent tries, in many court decisions, panhandling is designated as a form of protected free speech.

Instead of tempting the fates and a big lawsuit, some conservatives on city council want to spend about $30,000 to erect signs at intersections. The signs would ask people to refrain from donating to panhandlers, and give to homeless organizations instead.

It’s a nice thought.

Once again, however, mythology, misinformation and naive dreaming are about to drive yet another waste of tax dollars.

A big part of the Coffman myth is that homelessness in the region is what you see along roads and vacant lots. Tragically, it’s far more and far worse than that.

Thousands of homeless people in the region don’t live where you can easily see them. They live discreetly in cars, on the couches or floors of friends and family, or even at their work.

The dejected campers passed out in vacant lots along Havana Street, or the haggard guy hanging around the gas station on Colfax? They’re just a part of the problem.

But it’s these homeless people that give rise to the myth that the homeless people you see, and especially the ones you see panhandling at intersections and off-ramps, are all drug addicts and alcoholics who immediately trade your dollars into fentanyl tablets or a bottle of Cabin Still.

Mile High Behavioral Healthcare CEO Bob Dorshimer, has for years worked with people facing addiction, mental illness and many without homes. He now runs programs in Aurora and the metro area focusing on helping them get sober and in a home.

Dorshimer says it’s absolutely true that some panhandlers are working hard every day to feed their addiction and manage to do little else.

But it’s far more complicated than that.

Dorshimer says years of working with homeless people has led him to sort them, primarily, into three categories of panhandlers: Savvy grifters, desperate, chronically homeless people, and nomadic people moving across the country on a lark.

The lost and clearly incapacitated guy regularly at your usual McDonalds or the strip mall liquor store looking for a handout?

“They’re in survival mode,” Dorshimer said. Slipping that guy a couple of bucks gets him just what you think it does; a Happy Meal or a tall boy, Dorshimer said.

“These people don’t have the ability or sophistication to panhandle on the streets and busy intersections,” he said.

The grifters do. These are the people you most often see holding signs at busy intersections, along parkways and on highway entrance and exit ramps.

“They can be ruthless,” Dorshimer said. “It’s not friendly.”

In Aurora and the metro area, they’ve become increasingly territorial, protecting their stake on valuable real estate, with violence if they have to.

They can make real money putting in a day’s work at a lucrative intersection or exit ramp, Dorshimer and local outreach workers say.

“You can make a killing on the Havana corridor,” Dorshimer said, up to $250 a day at the right spot.

That kind of money has drawn often, but not always, scammers and grifters to the cause, creating an entirely new class of gangs.

Some of these people essentially can run drug or prostitution operations, leveraging their take from your donations into an underground underworld.

“If you see a woman panhandling on the street and a guy sitting back away from her, it’s often because she isn’t making enough money turning tricks and her pimp makes her beg to make up the difference.”

Some panhandlers are as legit as is possible, however, just not able to make ends meet with a low-paying job. A few hours with a sign can make up the difference.

He says that’s becoming rare because the “pros” chase them off of the best corners.

The group of panhandlers Dorshimer says has become even more rare these days are the younger people traveling across the country, following bands or some holy grail. They illegally camp and beg along the way. They, too, are relatively harmless. When the pandemic moved in, these people mostly moved on, he said.

So your donation is spent on a variety of different things depending on whom you hand it to.

Very little science has been done to find out the answer.

It doesn’t, however, prevent people like Coffman or other conservatives on city council from claiming that donors only fuel and perpetuate drug addiction.

Some recent research, however, shows that the conservative trope — about  homeless people with their hands out being untrustworthy to do the “right” thing with your generosity — isn’t true.

An extensive University of British Columbia study, led by Ryan Dwyer, Anita Palepu, Claire Williams, and Jiaying Zhao, in Vancouver would likely surprise Coffman and others like him.

The 2021 research project selected 50 homeless participants and a control group from that city’s extensive homeless population. Those selected were screened to ensure they did not have addiction or mental illness problems that were so debilitating that it impaired their ability to function at a basic level. The study did not preclude drug and alcohol users, however, or those struggling with emotional issues.

Each participant was given about $6,000 in a lump sum.

Get ready for a surprise.

“Over one year, cash recipients spent fewer days homeless, increased savings and spending with no increase in temptation goods spending, and generated societal net savings of $777 (Canadian dollars) per recipient via reduced time in shelters,” according to the study’s authors.

“This experiment presents first evidence that a one-time, unconditional cash transfer of $7,500 (Canadian) has the potential to be an effective tool to reduce homelessness, increase housing stability, savings, and spending, and generate net savings for society via reduced social service use.”

It turns out, that if you give many of the homeless people money, they spend it on food, necessities and trying to find a permanent home.

“But there was an equally important result of the study,” said study author, Jiaying Zhao, PhD.

The study also focused on the public perception distrusting homeless people’s ability to handle money responsibly.

The study revealed that the vast majority of the general public predicted that if you gave homeless people this kind of cash, they would blow it on drugs, alcohol and other “temptation goods.”

It’s a myth, an extension of Ronald Reagan’s dispelled “Welfare Queen” trope.

Not only did participants use the money to permanently improve their situation, but they didn’t really need nor want much help in turning things around, Zhao said.

“Coaching didn’t really help,” she said. “They knew exactly what they wanted to do.” 

They wanted off the streets, and a way to stay off.

The problem with science is that it sometimes flies in the face of our deep-seated lore. The problem with not recognizing that as a community decision maker, is that you’re prone to repeat bad decisions based on what you think is true, maybe wish was true, but simply isn’t.

The biggest takeaway from all of this, and what few other reputable studies have been completed, is that the problem of homelessness is incredibly complex and widespread.

It’s undeniable, however, that homeless camping bans and panhandling laws don’t end homeless camping or panhandling, no matter how much some wish that were the case.

Putting up signs on intersections is almost certain to be a waste of money that could go toward reducing rent for numerous people without homes, people who would jump at the chance to get off the streets for good.

There’s little argument against it being unsafe having people ask for handouts at intersections, and that it’s in the interest of the panhandlers, motorists and the public to prevent it.

But before Aurora can get its city council to find answers that work, it has to persuade them to turn away from the myths and legends that work against actually solving the problem.

Follow @EditorDavePerry on Twitter and Facebook or reach him at 303-750-7555 or [email protected]

 

 

 

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Omen Cross
Omen Cross
1 month ago

Wastefulness and ignorance. Such a shame. I wonder, will they also deny plans that could bring money into the city to help fund these programs, or will they simply blow off any ideas from people that they dont like? I know im on that list. I have an idea for something. A way to reward those doing good in the city and a way for the city itself to make money. But because its me, they dont want to hear it. So I guess I should sell my ideas off to the highest bidder like the Council does. Soulless, spineless, sickening, stupid, and sorry as f*%&.

Joe Felice
Joe Felice
1 month ago
Reply to  Omen Cross

I’d like to know what your idea is.

Omen Cross
Omen Cross
1 month ago
Reply to  Joe Felice

As do many. Is it so surprising that I have a plan? Not just an idea for how to spend money, but how to make some too. Using something we all know we need more of in Aurora. Also using the talents and skills of the citizens and businesses of Aurora. Local hands to create something amazing, with an adaptation to a commercial version(s) that the city can use to produce revenue. Revenue that goes directly back into the charities and organizations making Aurora brighter. Why put down a sign to ask to donate to a charity when you can show your support everywhere you go? Now THATS how you fund charities, reward those agencies that are doing more than pushing papers and making excuses, and get the public involved on a hyper-massive scale. All my idea, which I have now shared with at least one member of the Council. Many others will argue the cost, the need, other nonsense. But remember when they do, these are the same wasting your tax dollars to accomplish nothing now.

Factory Working Orphan
Factory Working Orphan
1 month ago
Reply to  Omen Cross

Nothing you proffered here is an actual plan, just rambling gobbledy-gook.

Omen Cross
Omen Cross
1 month ago

Sure it is, you just dont understand the context. Dont be upset that I havent let the cat out of the bag completely. After all, intellectual property is important, especially this. But don’t worry, you’ll know more soon. Once the staff are done crunching numbers on it. And I do like surprising people with things that are positive, so you will hafta excuse me on that part.

Last edited 1 month ago by Omen Cross
Factory Working Orphan
Factory Working Orphan
1 month ago
Reply to  Omen Cross

Speaking like a guru doesn’t actually make you one.

Omen Cross
Omen Cross
1 month ago

Im just me. I dont claim to be anything other than me. But I’m also a firm believer that great things cna be accomplished with the right mindset. Again, as I have no donations or “owners” like members of the Council, I can do what I want to. I could very easily just do nothing and watch them fail. Or do like Jurinsky, and sue the city for attempting to criminalize me and take away my Right to Free Speech. But instead, im trying to do something positive. Im not making a dime off this, nor do I intend to for myself. Because unlike some members of the Council, not everything I do is to help myself.

Last edited 1 month ago by Omen Cross
Doug
Doug
1 month ago
Reply to  Omen Cross

Yeah , let’s talk

Omen Cross
Omen Cross
1 month ago
Reply to  Doug

Ill be at the meeting a week from Monday. As I will every time I decide to, until this Council works toward more than harassment and wasteful abuse of the citizens. Hope to see you all there.

Publius
Publius
1 month ago

And if Aurora starts giving the stipends suggested would that become known, and then attract additional homeless from the region to Aurora?

Joe Felice
Joe Felice
1 month ago
Reply to  Publius

The fact that we have a law that requires the City to provide adequate shelter space for every homeless person should be sufficient to attract additional homeless folks from around the Country.

Joe Felice
Joe Felice
1 month ago

I’m willing to bet that Coffman did not sleep in a tent with other homeless folks, did not defecate outdoors or did not go without a shower for a week. In other words, he missed out on the true pith of homelessness, then came back to lecture us about it.

Hypocrisy Monitor
Hypocrisy Monitor
1 month ago
Reply to  Joe Felice

According to the well-publicized story, Joe, Mayor Mike slept in encampments and shelters and accessed the exact same resources and facilities every single homeless person in Denver and Aurora has.

Zero
Zero
1 month ago
Reply to  Joe Felice

Even more importantly than where he slept and shit, we know that he didn’t have the single most difficult factor in homelessness – he didn’t go without a safety net. Coffman was able to take risks and safely navigate through his cruel pantomime of homelessness without any consequences to his future. He wasn’t at risk of being sexually assaulted or physically attacked or having his hobo costume stolen, he had a camera crew and APD on speed dial, so he was protected. If he started to freeze to death or die of heatstroke, he still could have just given up and gone home to his mansion at any time – or he could have called an ambulance (and paid with his taxpayer-funded health insurance, no less). If he needed to know where to go or get resources, he literally had a city staff assistant to call to give him directions – and when he went to the shelters, the shelter staff knew who he was to keep him safe and make sure he had the “best” experience. Saying Coffman has experienced homelessness is like saying that kindergartener who has ridden on a 5-cent kiddie-ride shaped like a rocket is an experienced astronaut.

Michael L Moore
Michael L Moore
1 month ago

A little compassion and understanding that homelessness is a broad problem with many causes would certainly be welcome. I commend Coffman for trying to understand by mingling out in the street, but in the end, he saw what he wanted to see, and worse, he blames who he wants to blame. Jurinski wants to clear intersections and provide areas with “sharp rocks,” so no one can loiter. She, as usual, doesn’t even try to understand, but that never stops her big mouth. I hope citizens from Aurora see what a waste of time and resources having her on the council is.

Factory Working Orphan
Factory Working Orphan
1 month ago

Compassion and understanding hasn’t solved the homeless problem in the past, and it won’t in the present or future, either. In fact, based on experience of Denver’s sister city, Portland, it actually makes the problem worse.

J. Walter
J. Walter
1 month ago

Here’s a dilemma for many of us. Quite a few panhandlers appear coherent and able-bodied, while there are help wanted signs everywhere. If there could be a place that provided address and phone contact, could, or WOULD, these mostly-guys get real jobs? I feel for the ladies in Indian and Muslim garb, who have kids with them, but I can’t know the real backstories. I have given money to these women, because it is abhorrent that a woman would have to beg for her children. Unfortunately, them having to beg might be a cultural horror. I could be wrong?

Business Owner
Business Owner
1 month ago

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but you are so wrong about the current homeless population. They continually threaten me and my staff, chase away my customers, leave trash all over the property, and leave used drug needles and paraphernalia. Until you have had canned food thrown at you, you have no idea what you are talking about. They are ungrateful. I actually tried to help one that then came asking for cardboard and a marker to write a sign because he wanted to beg for money for drugs. He lived in the apartments behind our business. He wasn’t homeless at all. These people are a blight on society. I have no sympathy for them at this point. They need straight jackets and mental hospitals, not shelters. I have had friends who have been homeless, these vagrants are not the same thing. If you have such a soft spot for them, please feel free to open your home and get them off my property.

Omen Cross
Omen Cross
1 month ago
Reply to  Business Owner

Sit i feel for you. As one of the homeless that refused to stand in traffic, did not aggressively panhandle people at gas stations and the like, and am actually courteous enough to move for people on the sidewalk, I cant imagine being that way to people. Matter of fact, just before I got housed I had an interaction with a business owner. The guy building the Autozone on 6th next to Restoration Church. Same thing youd expect, “you cant be here”. I didnt get mad, whats the point? We actually had a nice conversation he and I, and when I left I did so peacefully. But these people are the same ones we’re all talking about in some way. These are the ones that refuse help. These are the ones that abuse kindness, and people people like yourself. The same ones that i have been told personally by aid organizations get housed and thank these people for their help with a middle finger, and are thrown out of the homes they are given for the same behavior soon after.. People like this are a danger to the community. But they are not all of the homeless population. But these things they are doing are actually crimes. There is a difference between a homeless man and a criminal, in the same way there is a difference between the average person and criminals. The choices they make, and the laws they break. Whether or not we are trying to be kind and caring, we cannot allow the other side either. Which is criminals using the guise of homelessness to commit crime.

Debra MacKillop
Debra MacKillop
1 month ago

Under Coffman, the Aurora leaders will never operate as a team, looking at the real and serious concerns of ALL Aurorans, and innovate together and with real experts to find solutions to those concerns. It will be gimmicky and often downright mean ways to blame the most vulnerable in our midst for the problems that need smart, qualified, caring leaders to work on – but which Coffman is totally incapable and unqualified to address. VOTE COFFMAN OUT.

Factory Working Orphan
Factory Working Orphan
1 month ago

Yes, Debra, the same old refrain–“These people all have to think like me or nothing will get done!”

White House Twitter Energy
White House Twitter Energy
1 month ago

yo if sundberg hates handouts so much, why’d he go begging for $350k of PPP handouts

idk idk idk

just sayin