Editor: The conclusions that Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman drew after going undercover in Denver’s homeless camps and shelters are spot on, and those who disagree should have the courage to risk their lives the way he did to find out for themselves. After spending a week in shelters and unsanctioned homeless camps, Coffman believes the camps are a result of a “drug culture,” and that the shelters are enabling this “lifestyle” of dependency.
He has received much criticism from Aurora and Denver community leaders who believe his views are a misconception. Instead of criticizing him for putting his life on the line to actually try to find some answers, maybe Aurora Councilmembers Crystal Murillo, who called it a “publicity stunt”, and Alison Coombs, who says he “is not listening to the experts on this issue,” along with Denver Councilmember Candi CdeBaca who thinks “the only solution to homelessness is housing,” should spend some quality time at the camps speaking to the real “experts” on homelessness, like my daughter, Mallory (pseudonym).
As the parent of one of those young, meth-addicted homeless people, I can say that the true misconception is that the majority of homeless people want help but have nowhere to go and lack the resources to get back on their feet. According to my homeless daughter, that is just not true. She believes only 5% of Denver’s homeless population actually want help getting off the streets, and an overwhelming 95% just want to be left alone to do their drugs. Mallory would rather live on the streets of Denver than at home with her family or in a sanctioned homeless camp, simply because she wants to use drugs. She has housing options if and when she wants to turn her life around, but she has no interest in seeking help for her mental health and substance abuse issues. Make no mistake, as Coffman says, this is a lifestyle choice she is making.
After Christmas, Mallory had the opportunity to live at the new sanctioned women’s camp at the First Baptist Church in Denver, but she chose not to. In fact, she hung up on the woman who manages it because she was not interested in hearing about their mental health and substance abuse services and was upset with their rules about drug use and pets.
In Mallory’s ideal scenario, someone would give her a free place to live where she could shoot up meth, with no strings attached. She has no trouble finding free food at various shelters and free needles at the Harm Reduction Action Center. People who think they are helping her by giving her spare change provide her with plenty of money for drugs and no motivation to ever get sober.
We’ve been trying to help Mallory with her mental health and substance abuse issues since she was 14, and everywhere we’ve turned for help, we’ve been told, “We can’t help her if she doesn’t want help.” When she was a teenager, we found this answer unfathomable and unacceptable. We were led down a rabbit hole of residential treatment facilities and juvenile detention centers that just exacerbated her problems. Now that she is twenty-one, and after seven years of hell, we finally understand – there’s nothing we can do until she wants help.
I imagine the taxpaying people of Denver are feeling equally frustrated that there doesn’t seem to be workable solution to these unsafe homeless encampments. Sweeps aren’t working. The homeless just find a new place to set up camp, and it becomes a costly never-ending cycle. Sanctioned camps might help those who really want it, but if more are added before evaluating their effectiveness, I believe they will soon be included in a long list of failed programs too.
Homelessness won’t end if we don’t treat the root causes of mental illness and substance abuse, and we can’t do that without the buy-in of the person being treated. I don’t know what the solution is, but I do believe we need to stop enabling those who don’t want help turning their lives around and just want a handout so they can continue living their drug-addicted way of life.
In response to those who think they are helping people living on the streets by giving them food and money, Coffman hit the nail on the head when he said, “I would say you’re hurting these people. You’re really prolonging what is really a negative lifestyle that is going to eventually kill these people.” We keep hoping Mallory will get tired of living this way before becoming another statistic, but as long as people keep making it easier for her to maintain her lifestyle, it’s a very real possibility we worry about every day.