Homeless

Will Aurora Enact a Camping Ban? Mayor Coffman Has Suggested One.

Even though Aurora has encampments, the city has not enacted a camping ban.
Even though Aurora has encampments, the city has not enacted a camping ban. Conor McCormick-Cavanagh
On October 19, during an Aurora City Council study session, Mayor Mike Coffman revealed that he was considering a camping-ban ordinance for Aurora.

"Yes, I am working on a proposal on a camping ban," Coffman said after he was questioned about his October 12 tweet noting that the city would be opening a warehouse-style homeless shelter soon and that he hoped Aurora "can be more aggressive about closing down these encampments" once there's a shelter in place.

Unlike Denver, Aurora does not have a camping ban on the books; establishing such an ordinance would allow the city to more easily disperse homeless individuals using tents or sleeping bags to shelter themselves outdoors. It could also open the city up to the sort of criticism leveled at Denver for the ban it passed in 2012.

But so far, about half of Aurora City Council's members say they're either definitely against or likely against any type of camping ban.

"I'm just really surprised that this is something that anyone at this point would seriously consider, just based off the expense and the bad press, and the fact that it doesn't actually accomplish anything in Denver," says Councilman Juan Marcano, who told the study session that he doesn't think "Hancock's legacy is something we need to emulate here in Aurora."

Councilwoman Alison Coombs labels Denver's camping ban "cruel" and "inhumane" and a failure. "I think it’s a policy that criminalizes homelessness and poverty even further than those things are already criminalized," she says.

Member Allison Hiltz agrees that such a policy is "criminalizing"; Crystal Murillo says that such bans are responsible for "villainizing" homelessness. Both say they would oppose any camping-ban proposal for Aurora.

And while Mayor Pro Tem Nicole Johnston says that she'd need to see the proposal before confirming her stance, she notes that she doesn't like camping bans and is a likely 'no' vote.

Councilmembers Dave Gruber, Francoise Bergan and Marsha Berzins all say they'd want to look at the proposal before making a commitment, though they all recognize that homelessness is growing in Aurora.

"I am concerned about the increasing number of camps in the city. We’ll have to do something," Gruber says.

Adds Bergan: "I know residents and businesses are very concerned and frustrated with the homeless camps, so it needs to addressed soon from a public-safety and hygiene perspective. Our number-one priority to residents as a city is public safety. We also must consider the negative impacts to our businesses, as they are the lifeblood of our revenues."

Berzins worries that encampments can be harmful to those living in them. "Our residents are also concerned with camps scattered around the city because they could have unsanitary conditions and be dangerous for our homeless population," she says. But she declines to say how she'd vote on a camping ban, explaining that councilmembers "are not allowed to say in advance how [they] would vote on a proposal."

Members Curtis Gardner and Angela Lawson both say they're not comfortable commenting on the idea of a camping ban without seeing the actual proposal. 

Coffman declined an interview request through a city spokesperson: "Since there is no proposal drafted yet, the mayor has nothing else to add at this time other than what he already posted on social media," says Abraham Morales.

Byron Shaw, a street outreach worker for Mile High Behavioral Healthcare who visits encampments in Aurora to offer services, says that the mayor's social media announcement caught him and other service providers by surprise.

"Right now, it’s all about what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has to say. From my understanding, their stance is we’re not to encourage camps to move. So in the interest of COVID and social distancing, we’re told to tell campers to stay put," explains Shaw, who says he worries that a camping ban and increased enforcement to get people into shelters could hurt efforts to ensure social distancing

City officials are currently in negotiations with a warehouse owner for a space that Aurora could lease as a homeless shelter for the winter. The city has an overnight shelter capacity of around 100, well under the 427 homeless individuals counted in Aurora through a Point In Time survey back in January.

Right now, after landowners notify authorities that there are individuals trespassing on their property, the city can issue a notice to evacuate. Aurora is the landowner of the city's parks, and typically provides a seven-day notice to vacate to those camping there.

However, Shaw says that he and other outreach workers have been instructed to let most encampments stay in place unless a landowner complains. A camping ban would give Aurora more power to disperse encampments, which have significantly increased in the city over the past year, according to Shaw.

Homeless advocates and service providers generally view Denver's camping ban as ineffective at getting people into housing or onto a path toward housing, since many of those who are told to move along simply relocate their tents elsewhere.

Instead of enacting a camping ban, Marcano and Coombs suggest that the city should explore establishing safe-camping sites as a temporary fix to ensure that people are able to live in clean and safe settings without being in a park or on other public land or private property.

The City of Denver is currently working on establishing safe-camping sites throughout the city, though that project has encountered several obstacles.

Still, Shaw agrees that safe-camping sites would be a good idea for Aurora. "It’s either that, or they’re going to have to start building low-income housing in a hurry," he says. "Otherwise, it’s not going to get any better, and it’s going to probably be worse."
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Conor McCormick-Cavanagh is a staff writer at Westword, where he covers a range of beats, including local politics, immigration and homelessness. He previously worked as a journalist in Tunisia and loves to talk New York sports.