Following months of debate and controversy, Aurora City Council voted on March 14 in favor of a camping-ban ordinance that prohibits people experiencing homelessness from sheltering outdoors using tents or sleeping bags. The proposal now goes to a final vote on March 28.
"It is a step in the right direction to address the businesses and residents who do have concerns about safety and the sanitary conditions," said Councilmember Francoise Bergan, a Republican who voted in favor of the ban sponsored by Mayor Mike Coffman.
The ordinance calls for banning camping on public property and allowing city officials to sweep encampments after providing a minimum notice of 72 hours and ensuring that there is adequate shelter space available for encampment residents. If approved in the final vote, the law will take effect at the end of April, and Colorado's third-largest city will have a homeless encampment enforcement policy largely in line with that of the City of Denver, which has had a camping ban in place since 2012.
Similar to the first vote on February 28, the March 14 vote fell largely along partisan lines. The five Republican councilmembers voted in favor of the ban, while the four Democrats and one unaffiliated member opposed the measure. Since there was a 5-5 tie, Coffman broke the tie as mayor, voting in favor of his own proposal.
Coffman, a Republican who lost his 6th Congressional District seat to Democrat Jason Crow in 2018, won the Aurora mayoral race in late 2019. He first floated the idea of establishing a camping ban in October 2020. At the end of that year, Coffman spent a week living anonymously on the streets of metro Denver; the mayor stayed in a shelter and also lived outdoors, where a camera crew filmed him.
In the coverage that followed of "Homeless Mike," Mayor Coffman told CBS4: "These encampments are not a product of an economy under COVID. They are not a product of rental rates, housing. They are a product of a drug culture." The people he met were not homeless because of a lack of shelter, he added. "Absolutely not. It is a lifestyle choice, and it is a very dangerous lifestyle choice."
The mayor had originally proposed a camping-ban ordinance last summer, but was unable to secure a majority vote in August. Then, in November, the political tides shifted on Aurora City Council. Following that election, Coffman reintroduced his camping-ban proposal.
Although failing to abide by Aurora's camping ban will not carry an explicit punishment, people who refuse to move from an encampment can be subject to a citation for failure to obey a lawful order, which can carry a penalty of up to 364 days in jail and a fine of up to $2,650.
A 2021 Point in Time count showed that there were 594 people staying in shelters in Aurora on a single night in January of that year. (Service providers did not conduct an unsheltered count in 2021, owing to concerns about COVID spread; the results of the 2022 count have not yet been released.) Aurora has emergency sheltering capacity — including safe-camping sites, safe-parking sites and pallet homes — of approximately 300 beds; it can increase its capacity in cold-weather situations, officials say.
There are also numerous people staying in unsheltered settings. Until now, outreach workers have worked with the Aurora Police Department to clear encampments, but there hasn't been a set 72-hour timeline. Coffman says that he settled on the 72 hours' notice policy to limit potential legal exposure for Aurora, as cities like Denver have faced lawsuits over encampment sweeps without enough notice.
The Democrats on Aurora City Council pushed hard against the camping ban during the March 14 meeting.
"This is going to institutionalize state violence against folks who are experiencing homelessness in our city," said Councilman Juan Marcano, a Democrat.
Councilwoman Crystal Murillo, another Democrat, put forward an amendment to instruct city staff to develop a policy for storing the belongings found at encampments that have been swept. "We are taking away everything that people have in this ordinance. How dare we not even provide an opportunity to store that safely for people?" Murillo said.
Added Councilman Curtis Gardner, a Republican who supported the amendment, "I think it’s really important that we protect people’s belongings."
Coffman supported that amendment, which passed and has been added to the proposal going up for a final vote on March 28.