I’ve met so many people moving to metro Aurora who are shocked at what they perceive to be a massive homeless problem. What they don’t understand is that homelessness along the Front Range is about like anywhere else — we simply don’t hide it.
It’s a complicated problem in part because, for many vagrants, it’s not a problem at all. Not for them, nor should it be.
The real problem that Aurora says it will spend about $4.5 million on in the next two years just became more acute this week by Denver shooing vagrants off Downtown sidewalks. The problem is we treat homelessness as a single problem, when it’s actually wide variety of issues.
There are three kinds of homeless people. First, there are people who don’t want to be homeless. Then there are people who do want to be homeless. And then the people who are so messed up for a long list of reasons, they just end up being homeless but probably wouldn’t be if they were able to get it together. And like a giant Venn diagram encircling an endless herd of shopping carts, sleeping bags, ratty coats and wheeled luggage, homeless people constantly move from one flavor to the other.
This week, Denver finally lost patience with the growing number of homeless people who’ve set up camp in parts of Downtown, claiming sidewalks, alleys and tiny plots of nothing as their own. Saying there’s plenty of room in city shelters, they’re confiscating their camps and telling them to move along.
You know they will. Besides the few stubborn types, they’ll be moving down to Cherry Creek, the South Platte River, Clear Creek and Aurora.
Aurora and much of the Colfax corridor have long been favorite haunts of vagrants. Aurora officials know that’s going to get worse even if Denver doesn’t annoy its own vagrants out this way. When the long-delayed Aurora Veterans Hospital on the old Fitzsimons campus finally opens in about two years, Colfax — and especially the area around the new VA hospital — will be awash in homeless veterans. I promise.
Aurora is right on in realizing it’s going to take lots of money and focus to come to grips with this before things get as ugly as they are in Downtown Denver. City leaders should be lauded for doing the right thing.
But here’s where it’s going to ugly for a lot of people right now: figuring out just what the “right thing” is.
Most of what we see and know about vagrants may be unpleasant, but it’s not a crime, and we have no business — none — imposing housing on anyone. It may be undesirable to not have a home, but it’s undesirable to be overweight, smoke cigarettes or gamble away your paycheck. We can’t, nor should we, make those shortcomings illegal any more than we should make it a crime to not have a home.
Lots of homeless people don’t want to be homeless. And we have a responsibility that benefits all society to help people help themselves and get off the streets and creeks and into a home. Often overlooked is that homelessness is as much a symptom as it is a problem. People become homeless because of bad things beyond their control, bad things they brought on themselves, bad choices, bad genes and bad luck. Here’s where cities like Aurora and Denver can help. They can provide mental health treatment ± a huge issue and need — and they can provide programs to temporarily house people and get them to be able to eventually house themselves.
But there’s a huge population of people who don’t want to sober up, quit doing drugs, get a job or just deal with the responsibility of life. In a better world, every homeless person would take care of themselves and live happily ever after in a furnished three-story walk-up. In the real world, there are herds of people so blinded by alcoholism, mental illness, dysfunction and past abuse that they will never become who we wish they would be. And there is a smaller group of people who may pretty much be able to keep it together, but they just don’t want to.
We have to be OK with that. We don’t have to let them harass business patrons and camp out on sidewalks and in parks. But if vagrants want to wander inside malls, up and down Colfax, Havana, Broadway or Cherry Creek Drive all day or night, we have to let them. And the sooner we’re OK with realizing there will always be people who may not choose to be homeless but do choose to not pursue a home, the better for everyone. When it’s dangerously cold or they get tired of being shooed along and make their way to shelters, the opportunity to nudge them into getting off the streets will always be there. We can’t give up on vagrants, but we have to realize there are many of these people who will not be compelled to give it up. That’s their constitutional right, and that’s something we must come to grips with before we set out to “solve” the problem of homelessness.
It means that there’s going to be a lot of looking the other way when people doze off in parks, hang for a night under remote bridges or beg for cash. It means that cops are going to get lots of calls to shoo away vagrants from schools and Colfax businesses. Police can only do so much because rounding up and rousting every vagrant in Aurora will bankrupt the city. Aurora will have to build and manage a large shelter or many shelters, most likely on or near the Fitzsimons campus.
The problem will never be solved, but it can be managed. And it starts with helping all of Aurora accepting that touchstone before we spend a single dime.
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