VAN VOORHIS: Coffman’s camping ban is an archaic directive to criminalize poverty

I am a long-standing resident of Aurora Colorado, and I’m proud to say that I was born and raised here. With over 386,000 residents, we are the most ethnically diverse city in Colorado. This is something that makes us genuinely unique, and is one of the main reasons I’m now choosing to raise my own children in this wonderful city.

What is not unique to our community is ever-increasing housing costs, the economic downturn and loss of jobs due to COVID-19, and a growing unhoused population. It is not hard to see that we have more families, couples, and individuals living unhoused in Aurora.

Kathleen Van Voorhis

Just go through a major intersection or look out the window while driving down I-225. What will you see? The father and his two children on Iliff. The mother who works nights living off of Mississippi. The family sleeping in their car behind Walmart — the father employed, and the kids in school. You will see the couple who both lost service jobs during the pandemic and did not have their lease renewed, sleeping over by American Furniture Warehouse.

So how do we as a community engage with our unhoused neighbors, with each other, and with our elected officials to create positive lasting change? How do we create change that ensures long-standing stability for so many in our city who have fallen on hard times?

Mayor Mike Coffman believes that a camping ban is the only way forward.

The next logical question to ask is, “If camping is made illegal, where should our unhoused neighbors go?” With not enough beds, services, or housing options, how does making camping illegal change the current crisis we find ourselves in?

Coffman notes that he “wants to make sure that the proposed camping ban meets the conditions spelled out in court decisions where camping bans have been challenged and upheld.” While he is of course referring to the Denver camping bans, I would urge Mayor Coffman to review the Martin v. Boise ruling that came out of the U.S. Court of Appeals 9th Circuit, and to note the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to decline hearing the appeal of this case. This case stated that imposing criminal sanctions on people sleeping outdoors in public spaces when they have nowhere else to go violates the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

I would also ask Mayor Coffman how well he thinks this ban in Denver has worked. With the need for continual sweeps costing hundreds of thousands of dollars to taxpayers and no solution in site, how does Mayor Coffman see the Aurora mimicking this policy as a solution? When other cities across the country are showing no cost benefit of such a ban, how does the Mayor justify such an exorbitant expense that brings no true change for the unhoused or housed? How does criminalizing camping without working on housing options and housing availability create change?

Homelessness continues to increase across our state. While many cities and counties are looking toward concrete best practices and long-standing solutions, Mayor Coffman is choosing to put in place a policy that has proven time and time again to criminalize poverty while offering no true solution. We know that homelessness is caused by a lack of affordable housing, economic downturn, gentrification, and by long-standing racially motivated policies such as the criminalization of the poor.

Criminalizing camping only wastes local government resources. Rather than addressing the barriers people have to obtaining stable housing, employment, and access to education, bans such as the one proposed simply create a harmful cycle. We take people from the street, throw them into the criminal system, and then back to the streets and into an even more disadvantaged situation. While these laws are constantly justified under the theory that they are a protection of public interest and health, evidence shows that they are in fact ineffective, expensive, and routinely violate basic human rights.

The National Low Income Housing Coalition Out of Reach Report 2020, Gap Report 2021, and the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty all note that in order to address homelessness, housing must be the solution. It is astounding that with 67 million dollars set to come into Colorado, 24.7 million coming into the State of Colorado through HOME funds, and continued Emergency Solutions Grants (ESG), Mayor Coffman is choosing to spend time on an archaic and failed policy.

With the influx of Federal funds and the guidance of HUD Secretary Fudge to stop criminalizing poverty, to stop building shelters, and to find housing-first sustainable models to uplift communities as a whole out of an ever-growing homeless and housing crisis, why would Mayor Coffman waste taxpayer money on a failed approach rather than taking advantage of this historic moment to create lasting change and stability for Aurora?

Criminalization of poverty has historically been used as a way to discriminate against those who are not welcome in communities. It has been used as a way to legalize segregation, and ensure those encompassed by its policy remain trapped in an inescapable cycle of poverty. The Institute for Policy Studies notes that criminalization of poverty — which is what this camping ban is—disproportionally affects people of color, and has historically been utilized to encourage segregation.

Poverty can affect anyone. You and I are not as far away from having to spend a night on the street as we might think. I’ve made a habit of visiting and getting to know many of our unhoused neighbors in Aurora, and I can tell you that poverty is blind.

I know that our community and our city can do better, and I urge the Mayor to listen to experts, heed research, and reconsider this ban. With the influx of funds, service providers in the community, reaching out to assist with short term and long term homeless and housing plans, and direction from the federal level down, we can find a way forward that allows all within our community to find stability. As Mayor, Coffman’s job is to care for all Aurorans, not just those who were lucky enough to remain stable during a global pandemic.

Kathleen Van Voorhis, PhD, is director of Housing Justice at Interfaith Alliance of Colorado. She is a lifelong Aurora resident and a housing and homelessness expert.