PERRY: Mayor Coffman’s mock-homeless close-up highlights the danger of unreality TV

Mayor Mike Coffman talks with CBS Channel 4 News Denver reporter Shaun Boyd after his week posing as a homeless vet last week. SCREEN GRAB

Mayor Mike Coffman told a Denver TV reporter this week that people are deceiving themselves in thinking they’re doing the right thing when it comes to dealing with the region’s homelessness problem.

He should heed his own advice.

Coffman fooled himself into thinking that by pretending to be homeless for a week he now has the answers to one of the region’s most heartbreaking and complicated social problems.

If only it were that easy. 

The Aurora mayor became the story this week after posing as a homeless veteran for seven days and hanging out in a few local encampments and shelters.

Becoming the story was clearly his intent. He invited an obliging Channel 4 TV News Reporter Shaun Boyd to exclusively relate his adventure.

This made-for-TV gambit resulted in hubbub over Coffman and Boyd perpetuating old chestnuts and tropes about the cause of homelessness and the mischaracterization of those who don’t have a place to live. 

Coffman said he pretended to be homeless to learn about what’s driving the problem. Instead, he ended up being schooled by homeless advocates, mental health workers and some of his municipal peers about what a bad idea the pretense was.

“I think he should issue a formal apology for it. It’s completely unacceptable,” said Englewood City Councilmember John Stone. He scolded Coffman during a virtual news conference Thursday, called by a consortium of area elected officials and homelessness experts. Stone said he was homeless between the ages of 16 and 21. “…I was homeless for five years. And Mayor Coffman believes that I am a hopeless case.”

Stone was referring to Coffman telling Boyd that, after receiving his masters degree in homelessness last week at street school, he understands now that the region’s homeless problem is a lifestyle choice and addiction quandary. Coffman tried backpedaling on the comments the next day on his Facebook page.

“My intent was to (highlight) the difference between those staying in the shelters and those staying in the encampments,” Coffman wrote.

He surmised that people who live outside choose to so they can do drugs, because drugs are against the rules in shelters. After talking with some urban people on the street who were homeless, he determined that the people living in camps prefer their life on drugs to having to get a job.

Boyd didn’t offer any expert opinion during the exclusive segment, nor did she fact-check Coffman even once. The segment allowed him to toss out a veritable catalogue of debunked cliches about the causes, the conditions surrounding people who do not have homes.

He took his show on the road Saturday to FoxNews, where he told his story to an anchor there while B-roll ran from the Channel 4 segment and nobody questioned Coffman’s private assertions.

Coffman’s scheme was rife with red flags and problems from the beginning.

The mayor is not a journalist, but a journalist should have advised him about the ethical peril he invites by being dishonest about who he really is. Professional journalists embed themselves, but they never lie.

Coffman was also quickly and rightfully called out for passing off a week sleeping away from home as anything close to not being able to call for an Uber to get whisked back to reality if his charade went south or just got tiresome. 

Many of the story’s critics were incensed by Coffman telling Boyd that he wanted to get information for himself, outside of those with an “agenda.”

Over many years, I’ve talked to and at one point worked alongside advocates in the trenches. I cannot even fathom what kind of nefarious “agenda” Coffman thinks this army of endlessly heroic do-gooders have. Boyd didn’t ask. 

Really, homeless advocates don’t want people camping in parks and public spaces. Nobody does. They don’t see a healthy supply of visibly homeless people as job security nor a financial ticket to the good life.

These patron saints see an endlessly complicated problem that, in the end, results in people living stressful, dangerous and often wretched lives, unable to find a way out of their quagmire.

Visible homeless people are now all over the region.They’re next  to Home Depot in Golden. They’re behind Lamar’s Donuts in Broomfield. They are all camped across the metro area, trying to stay alive.

While addiction and homelessness on the street often go hand in hand, there are plenty of addicts with homes and even more people without homes and no addictions.  Substance abuse may appear to the untrained as a desire and choice. Of those I’ve known, who were addicted to heroin, opioids, alcohol or meth, not one wanted their addiction. Not one. Ever.

For each of them, their addiction was their cruel and relentless master. Heroin and meth don’t care that you sleep on a sidewalk.

Coffman’s other awakening came from determining that most homeless people aren’t from here. You don’t have to hang out in homeless camps to know that most people — everywhere in the metro area — aren’t from here any more. Real experts could set him straight in understanding the problem of homeless is statewide. There are indeed plenty of “native” homeless people in Colorado.

Coffman and Boyd together virtually ticked off a catalogue of cliches and myths that homeless advocates have worked so hard to debunk.

Asked by Boyd what advice Coffman has regarding panhandlers and do-gooders, Coffman advised not to give them food or money because it only perpetuates the problem.

That fable is common among some people who confuse the erroneous concept of “tough love” with discipline and accountability. 

Successful homeless recovery programs like Bridge House in Boulder and its Aurora counterpart, Ready to Work, work well because they integrate accountability and opportunity.

The debunked “tough love” fantasy  — don’t feed them — is a strategy to control feral cats.

Homeless people are not feral cats. The idea that free food only encourages homeless people to not get jobs is nothing but the fiction Ayn Rand got rich from. 

The problem with not feeding the hungry is that they starve. Then, you have starving homeless people and an even more serious problem.

Finally, Coffman said he’s hopeful because, “out of the blue” Denver Mayor Michael Hancock rang him and said he wants to look at a regional solution to the endless problem of homelessness. 

That’s nice.

Hancock helped make the problem of camping homelessness a regional problem with camping bans and sweeps that pushed people down the Platte River and up Cherry, Clear, Sand and Ralston creeks years ago.

My entire life I’ve heard Hancock and other metro officials call for a metrowide approach to addressing the problem of homelessness.

Hancock and others see sharing the pain of the symptoms of homelessness as the answer, rather than finding ways to treat the problems that cause it.

We’ll get there, but we need real expertise, real conviction and real resources. What we don’t need are boneheaded publicity stunts like this. 

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

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Joe Hardhat
Joe Hardhat
2 years ago

Mayor Coffman made some general statements about homelessness, which are accurate. Of course, there are exceptions to the rule. Indeed, most homelessness is due to substance abuse and character flaws, which can be treated and overcome.

2 years ago

The Mayor’s observations for 1 week is exactly what I have studied and read for many years. People do not want to be homeless. Most are homeless by choice – drugs, alcohol, free food, free housing, etc. Thank you Mayor for taking a week of your vacation to show what is really happening in our Democratic run cities.