On December 26, Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman tweeted that he was going on vacation.
"I've not taken time off since I was sworn in as the Aurora Mayor on December 2nd, 2019 and I've decided to take some much needed time off from noon today to noon on the 2nd of January, 2021," Coffman wrote. "I will remain in the area but will not be posting on social media, answering phone calls and emails, or responding to any media inquiries."
But Coffman wasn't lounging at home during his time off, trying to decompress from a busy year in Aurora politics. Instead, he spent a week homeless in metro Denver so that he could get a better handle on the issue of homelessness.
"I think the week really helped me understand the complexity of this issue," says Coffman, a Republican who previously represented Aurora and surrounding communities as the U.S. Representative for Colorado's 6th Congressional District. He told just one person that he'd be spending the week on the streets: Shaun Boyd of CBS4, who interviewed him before and after his homeless stint. CBS4 also sent out a cameraman to film Coffman at various points during the week, for a piece that aired January 5 on "Homeless Mike."
Coffman stayed in Denver and Aurora shelters on four nights; he slept outside on three, two of them in an encampment just off Speer by Sixth Avenue. "I probably was not as well-equipped as I should have been," admits Coffman, who'd packed a sleeping bag, a tarp and a backpack — but no money or food.
"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," Coffman told Boyd in the CBS4 story.
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."
Service providers who saw the CBS4 story applaud Coffman's interest in exploring the issues behind homelessness — but their praise for his efforts ends there. Coffman's conclusions miss the mark, they say, suggesting that Aurora's mayor is oversimplifying a very complex issue.
"I don’t think it’s a lifestyle choice. We have people who outreach to encampments on a regular basis. We have targeted a lot of our interventions to folks in encampments. It’s certainly not a very easy lifestyle, particularly in Denver, with the constant sweeps that are happening," says John Parvensky, executive director of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. "If it’s a lifestyle choice, it’s one that’s made out of desperation and not a real choice."
"The data just doesn't support that," adds Cole Chandler, whose organization, the Colorado Village Collaborative, runs one of Denver's safe-camping sites. "No one just makes a choice to live outdoors 365 nights out of the year. The real data point is the fact that for the Denver Social Impact bond project...they took the 250 most costly people in the city to the system and they asked them if they wanted to come into housing, and only one person said no."
"While we appreciate that Mayor Coffman is interested in understanding the root causes of homelessness, we know from decades of experience working with vulnerable youth that homelessness is incredibly complex. The youth we serve have weathered countless traumas from abuse, family instability, addiction and victimization to trafficking and generational poverty. These young people show remarkable resiliency even as they face homelessness during a pandemic and resulting recession," says Christina Carlson, CEO of Urban Peak, which operates multiple homeless shelters in Denver.
Parvensky thinks that Coffman's time on the streets simply reinforced what he's believed about homelessness for years.
"A denial of the real causes and issues of homelessness and more of a blaming-the-victim mentality seem to motivate a lot of folks that come from his side of the political spectrum as opposed to truly understanding what it means to be homeless," Parvensky says. "What are the conditions that lead up to that, what long-term life on the streets does to people, and how they turn to alcohol and other substances as a way of coping."
But Coffman stands by his observations. "One of the common denominators in the encampments was drug use," he says. "It wasn’t marijuana and alcohol. This was crack cocaine, this was meth and, in some cases, heroin."
While Parvensky acknowledges that drug use "is a problem amongst people who are experiencing homelessness," he says that Coffman simplified the issue. "It’s certainly prevalent throughout our society in all communities, poor communities, wealthy communities. Those folks who end up on the street don't have those safety nets and options for longer-term substance use treatments that they may need. ... Once they have that opportunity in safety, the last thing they want to do is go back to that experience."
And Chandler takes issue with Coffman's claim about economic factors not contributing to the growth of homeless encampments. "It's just not true," Chandler says. "At the root of the problem is the reality that over the course of several decades, housing prices have skyrocketed and wages have remained stagnant."
About a week before Coffman transformed himself into "Homeless Mike," he says he was contacted by Mayor Michael Hancock's administration regarding the establishment of a metro mayor homeless task force that will also include Adam Paul, mayor of Lakewood.
Coffman had already considered adopting one Denver program, and then decided against it. While late last year the Aurora mayor had floated the idea of establishing a camping ban similar to the one Hancock signed into law in 2012, he's now backed off that idea — but not because of his experience living on the street.
"I pulled it because I’m concerned that there’s a lot of case law surrounding these camping bans in terms of what you have to do to survive a court challenge," Coffman explains. "There’s so many requirements that the cure may be worse than the disease." For example, the City of Denver has faced multiple legal challenges regarding its camping ban, including one currently being litigated in the U.S. District Court of Colorado.
But after his nights on the streets, Coffman is no fan of encampments, either.
"I don’t see any redeeming qualities in these encampments," he says. "I just don’t. I think they are a public health and public safety nuisance."
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