PERRY: Street living is the road to ruin for Aurora, Denver and the region

MLK Jr Library employees at 9800 E. Colfax Avenue say the library and adjacent city plaza are overrun with drugs, alcohol, violence, trash and excrement. They said the change happened in May when Denver closed encampments Downtown, pushing people and problems down Colfax and into Aurora. PHOTO BY PHILIP B. POSTON/SentinelColorado

You can’t look away from the problem of homelessness in the metro area any more.

The growing number of visibly and painfully homeless people in Aurora, the suburbs and Denver makes it unavoidable, even deep into area  neighborhoods.

For years —  generations, actually — most of us have treated the issue of homelessness as a problem affecting only the people who don’t have an address of their own.

For the past year, Sentinel Colorado reporters have revealed a bevy of stories about who homeless people are and how their plight affects all of us.

Slowly, people have come to understand that there are throngs of people sleeping in cars — if they’re lucky enough to have one — and then heading to work the next morning. There are thousands and thousands of invisibly homeless people in the metro area, crashing on the couches of families and friends, sleeping in cars, subsisting in motels, or camping in out-of-the-way places, and working jobs, even sending their kids to school.

The homeless people that get everyone’s attention are the ones now camping in parks all over the metro area, in alleys, even along streets among ornate landscaping in office parks. The problem isn’t new. What is new is that it’s in your face so much of the time.

In Aurora, a virtual enclave has sprouted up in the public square adjacent to the Martin Luther King Jr. Library, as a story by reporter Grant Stringer pointed out.

City police, parks and homeless-assistance officials say they’re not sure what’s causing a huge, visible surge in the region’s homeless population. But they know this all feels and sounds different than ever before.

Some point to the pandemic. State and federal officials say that usual efforts to herd homeless people around are dangerous amid the plague of the new coronavirus. Others point to rampant drug use among some homeless people, making others too skittish about living in squalid and dangerous Denver encampments. Officials in Aurora say they’ve talked with many newcomers here and across the metroplex who say that downtown Denver encampments have become unbearable.

Others say that Denver has simply become increasingly hostile to homeless people, and life’s better here.

Not at Fletcher Plaza, next to the MLK library.

“Almost any kind of violence you can imagine, I have witnessed at the library,” one employee told Stringer.

That includes beatings, muggings, rape and brawls. All day. All night.

Mostly, it’s drugs and alcohol, and often both. Lots and lots of drugs, almost everyone agrees.

We can’t look away from this. These people need help. And if we don’t provide it, we’re going to need help when the addiction disasters boil over into even more and worse crime than what already has library employees and patrons losing sleep at night.

Another harsh, Colorado winter is just around the corner. The toxic mix of addiction, weather and homelessness will turn deadly for thousands and create profound trouble — even for those who think all of this has nothing to do with them.

My neighbor discovered a homeless man frozen to death in his yard one winter. A church near my house is struggling with how to get an elderly, homeless woman to stop breaking into their gated lot at night.

A small camp of homeless people near the Sentinel Colorado newsroom has prompted some people in offices near here to start carrying guns out of fear. On more than one occasion, disputes over turf on street medians became violent and people have been thrown into traffic.

We can’t look away any longer, and we can’t pretend that simply handing out toothbrushes and advice is doing enough good.

Aurora needs shelters. It needs large, well-managed shelters that offer a safe, clean place for people to be at night and during the day. Aurora needs shelters that offer treatment for addiction and other health problems. It needs shelters to help single women, who are especially at risk for becoming crime victims on area streets. The city needs shelters for people with children.

It’s not a matter of when. It’s a matter of now. Right now. Ignoring this only workable solution puts everyone in the city at risk.

Certainly this isn’t just an Aurora problem. It’s a metropolitan problem. And in a better world, the Denver Regional Council of Governments or Metro Mayor’s Task Force would step up and lead us to a rapid, regional solution.

But Aurora can’t wait. There are too many lives at stake, and — really — the safety of everyone who lives and works here.

But more than anything, there are thousands of people, many of them children, whose lives are marginalized at best, and who frequently are at risk for serious injury and even death because homelessness is seen as their problem, not ours.

Time to own this, Aurora, and address it.

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