"I will be introducing an ordinance prohibiting camping in the City of Aurora on Thursday," Coffman tweeted on Monday, May 17. "The proposal is already drafted but I want to work with our City Attorney's office to make sure that the proposed camping ban is compliant with the CDC guidelines that were put in place at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and are still in effect. I also want to make sure that the proposed camping ban meets the conditions spelled out in court decisions where camping bans have been challenged and were upheld."
Coffman, a Republican who previously served in the U.S. House of Representatives, has been floating the idea of an urban camping ban for Aurora since last October. In late December, he posed as a homeless veteran — aka "Homeless Mike" — and lived in encampments in both Denver and Aurora. He told Shaun Boyd, a political reporter for CBS4, in advance of his mission, and gave her the first interview afterward.
"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, adding that the people who went to shelters were different from those living outdoors. "It is a lifestyle choice, and it is a very dangerous lifestyle choice," he said of those on the streets.
Denver has had an urban camping ban in place since 2012. Other Front Range cities, including Boulder and Fort Collins, also have camping bans on the books.
Advocates argue that such bans criminalize homelessness. "Camping bans don't solve homelessness — they make it worse and are a waste of time and money. Punishing people for experiencing homelessness is cruel and unproductive. Leaders need to focus on and invest in real solutions like housing and services and stop stigmatizing the experience of homelessness to fit their own preconceived beliefs," says Cathy Alderman of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, who calls Coffman's plans "very disappointing."
"I think you hear from the activists, but I think members of council are going to hear from average organized citizens that are fed up with this," Coffman says. "Just like in Denver. No different than Denver."
Authorities in Denver cite the camping ban when asking people who are sheltering outdoors to move their tents, tarps or sleeping bags. But that ban, like others around the country, has been the subject of multiple legal challenges. The latest lawsuit against Denver's ordinance, filed by multiple homeless individuals and the advocacy organization Denver Homeless Out Loud in U.S. District Court of Colorado last October, resulted in a preliminary injunction issued by Judge William J. Martinez that requires Denver to give a week's notice before sweeping encampments and at least 48 hours' notice before clearing encampments even with critical health and safety conditions.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which suggest that encampments not be swept unless individual housing options are available, so as not to further the spread of the virus.
Denver officials estimate that the city's unsheltered population could be as high as 1,500 people. In Aurora, up to 400 people are living in shelters or on the streets. Until the end of last month, Aurora had a safe-camping site for people experiencing homelessness set up in a parking lot in the northwest part of the city, next to an emergency shelter, which was used for COVID isolation cases. Aurora officials are still exploring whether to set up more safe-camping sites throughout the city.
But in the meantime, Coffman's proposal will go to Aurora City Council.
Aurora has a council-manager form of government. While a city manager runs Aurora on a day-to-day basis, the mayor oversees council meetings and serves as the public face of the city. The mayor can also introduce ordinances, which Coffman has done multiple times. And Coffman would need only five of the ten councilmembers to approve the ordinance in order to get it through.
As mayor, he can only vote when the other members are deadlocked — and he gets to break the tie.
This story has been updated to include a quote from Mayor Mike Coffman.