AURORA | A contentious camping ban proposed by Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman on Twitter last month was met with trepidation and condemnation from city council members, law enforcement officials and activists when the measure was discussed publicly for the first time Thursday morning.
Members of the city policy committee that deals with housing issues technically voted 2-1 to quash Coffman’s proposal, though as a member of council the mayor could still unilaterally move his ordinance before the entire dais at a later date.
“I obviously think this is important,” Coffman told committee members Thursday. “I think that it’s fair to our residents but also it’s humane.”
Committee members Nicole Johnston and Alison Coombs rejected moving Coffman’s proposal forward, and Marsha Berzins supported it.
At its core, Coffman’s proposal would allow city officials to clear homeless encampments on public or private property that meet a series of criteria, such as presenting “an immediate threat to the health and safety of the public,” serving as evident epicenters of criminal activity, constituting fire hazards and a slew of other justifications, according to the proposed language.
Officials would only be able to dismantle a camp if the city could offer alternative shelter to all people currently residing there. Enforcers would also have to give a minimum of a three-day written and verbal notice before clearing a camp, though staffers suggested most notices will give people seven days to leave the area. Authorities would technically have up to 10 days to disassemble a camp after an initial notice is posted in the event of inclement weather, and outreach workers would be tasked with visiting the camp while such notices are up to try to convince people to move to other shelter options in the area.
The city typically has about 150 shelter beds available at Comitis Crisis Center on any given day, though that total can be padded by motel vouchers given to domestic violence victims or emergency shelters opened during extremely cold weather.
There were 427 people experiencing homelessness in the city according to the last point-in-time survey conducted by outreach workers last year, though such metrics are typically seen as severe underestimates of the total population. City staffers on Thursday said such counts don’t account for people who are staying in hotels and motels for short stints, or people who are effectively couch surfing with friends and family but don’t have a permanent residence of their own.
Coombs said the ratio of homeless people living in Aurora to the number of available shelter beds makes Coffman’s proposal unviable.
“This is getting ahead of ourselves … we are at less than 30% of what we need to be doing in order to really address this issue,” she said. “And so rather than putting in a ban and then saying that we’re going to address this issue, I believe we should continue working with staff who have been bringing forth proposals. And once we actually are offering what we need to offer, then have a conversation.”
City officials are currently conducting a so-called “land inventory” to determine where a sanctioned campsite or village could be constructed in Aurora. The audit is expected to be completed and discussed by a panel of council members later this summer.
Under Coffman’s plan, anyone who refuses to leave an encampment after being given notice and offered alternative shelter could be cited for violating city code, which could result in jail time and fines.
That worried Arapahoe County Sheriff Tyler Brown, whose office oversees the jail serving the bulk of Aurora. Brown said he’s concerned that homeless people jailed for violating the ordinance would become ensnared in the legal system, costing the county $108 a day to keep them detained.
“I think that there’s better options for that $108 to be used to try to help,” he said. “ … I don’t want the county jail to become a depository for individuals that are experiencing homelessness.”
Police Chief Vanessa Wilson, whose officers could largely be tasked with abating camps, said she was concerned with the optics of police tearing down ad hoc structures as the department attempts to move past a string of scandals.
“I really would be concerned about the enforcement piece as far as us looking as though we are criminalizing the fact that people are experiencing homelessness,” she said. “ … I just want to make sure that we’re used in the most minimal way.”
The measure does not currently spell out whether police, code enforcement officers or contractors would be asked to deconstruct the camps.
In the past year, the city has used both staffers and contractors to abate 29 camps by using a temporary policy tethered to pandemic-related protocols, according to city documents. The authority in that memorandum will end when the current disaster order related to COVID-19 ends, thus severing the city’s ability to actively remove camps.
Residents have lodged about 900 complaints related to camps in the city in the past year, and about half of those were in reference to RVs.
Several other Front Range municipalities, including Boulder, Arvada, Parker, Centennial and Denver have ordinances on the books that allow officials to sweep camps, according to Aurora officials.
The long-contested ban in Denver has been upheld despite a salvo of challenges, including those in the courts and a ballot question in 2019.
City attorneys said the proposed Aurora language largely mimics Denver’s law.
“Camping bans can be constitutional and lawful if drafted in a manner that is not motivated by a discriminatory purpose, that does not harm a politically unpopular group of people and criminalizes an activity not a status,” Assistant City Attorney Tim Joyce wrote in a memo discussing the measure.
Several council members and activists lambasted both the measure in Denver and the plan in Aurora.
“(Camping bans) are little more than a way to make people feel that their government has done something about this issue while just wasting the time of law enforcement, city staff and setting taxpayer dollars on fire,” Councilperson Juan Marcano said.
Ean Tafoya, a longtime opponent of Denver’s camping ban and founder of a mutual aid group that provides homeless individuals with water and sanitation supplies, echoed.
“Trying to work around the constitution to take away people’s rights is always going to fail,” he said.
Coffman’s proposal was originally expected to go before the full council at a study session on June 21, though the vote of no-confidence from council members Thursday could throw that timeline into limbo. The measure could get its first formal vote as early as June 28.
Berzins suggested Coffman lob the issue to voters this fall, but Coffman said he has not considered molding the issue into a ballot measure. He said he would mull the idea if council members eventually elect to kill the measure.
“If the ordinance is not successful, that’s an additional option I can look at based on deadlines in terms of when a referred measure would have to be passed,” said Coffman, a former Republican Secretary of State in Colorado. “ … I’m not sure what those deadlines are, but I think we’re well within the window now.”
Councilperson Crystal Murillo chided Coffman’s intimation that the issue could end up before the Aurora electorate in November.
“I think the timing of this is curious at best,” she said. “ … The fact that it’s an election year gives me pause (over) I guess the intention of this ban, as well as the conversation of potentially putting it to the voters. We’re playing with people’s lives with this campaign ban, and now we want to make it a campaign issue? That is just wholly disappointing to hear.”