Denver and Aurora Map Out Different Approaches to Resolving Homelessness

Aurora is taking a closer look at homelessness.
Aurora is taking a closer look at homelessness. Conor McCormick-Cavanagh
Although homelessness doesn't end at Denver city limits, for decades neighboring municipalities saw homelessness as an urban problem that should be handled by Denver, and Denver alone.

But that mentality has been changing in recent years, particularly in Aurora.

"There are many different approaches currently used to help those experiencing homelessness in the city of Aurora," says Mayor Mike Coffman. And on November 14, he laid out exactly what the city's approach to homelessness will be going forward as he pushed a resolution through Aurora City Council.

The same day that Aurora passed that measure, Denver City Council approved a budget that is key to Denver's approach to dealing with homelessness.

There are essential differences: Colorado's first- and third-largest cities have vastly different philosophies regarding how to resolve the problem of homelessness. The size of the challenge also varies: Aurora had 612 people experiencing homelessness on a January night during the 2022 Point in Time count, compared to 4,794 in Denver.

Denver likes the housing-first model

After nearly two decades of grappling with homelessness, Denver is now operating under a housing-first model, which focuses on getting homeless individuals housed before they take further steps toward getting a job or getting sober.

"The Department of Housing Stability believes that a stable home is the foundation from which members of our community are much better able to meet their other needs, whether that’s finding a new or better-paying job, reconnecting with family or engaging in behavioral health treatment," says Derek Woodbury, a spokesperson for Denver's Department of Housing Stability, which was set up by Mayor Michael Hancock in 2019.

In keeping with its housing-first approach, Denver has added tiny homes and safe-camping sites as a way to help people who may be uncomfortable using the shelter system as a bridge to eventual housing placement.

However, a truly housing-first approach requires enough deeply affordable housing, as well as supportive services, to meet everyone's needs. According to HOST's five-year plan, Denver is about 19,000 deeply affordable units short of fully accommodating a housing-first approach. The recently approved Denver budget for 2023 earmarks approximately $254 million for housing and homelessness, some of which will chip away at the affordable-housing shortage. Much of that money is coming from one-time federal COVID relief dollars; the rest is from a voter-approved tax, state and federal grants, and general fund dollars.

Denver's homelessness services are scattered across much of the city, and affordable housing is a requirement of all new developments. There are shelters north of downtown Denver, a men's shelter at East 48th Avenue and Dahlia Street, and safe-camping sites and a tiny home village located in various neighborhoods.

Aurora likes the work-first model

Aurora is taking a different approach to resolving homelessness. The resolution passed by Aurora City Council on November 14 notes that the city will "incentivize participation in supportive services for transitional housing," "offer workforce development opportunities" and "continuously measure success by outcomes centered around the number of people who reach self-sufficiency."

Coffman, who visited San Antonio, Houston and Colorado Springs to study their programs, and also spent a week undercover on the streets of metro Denver as a homeless individual, has been outspoken about how he wants Aurora to take a "work-first" approach to homelessness, requiring people to get jobs or get sober before they can receive much help.

"The newly passed resolution defines a specific direction for a campus-like setting with a focus on putting the resources behind those who want to change their behavior by getting sober, seeking mental health care, getting job training and becoming employed, with the goal of moving as many of the homeless population as possible to self-sufficiency," says Coffman.
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Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman has taken on the issue of homelessness.
The mayor has pushed an idea he got from the Colorado Springs Rescue Mission, which calls for locating all of Aurora's homelessness services on a single campus with three separate areas, the first of which will be the low-barrier shelter.

"The second will be for those participating in programs such as addiction recovery, mental health and job training, under the supervision of a case manager, to meet their individual requirements under a 'Navigation Plan,'" Coffman says. "The third area will be for those who are working but not yet ready to be fully independent. Living circumstances will improve as those experiencing homelessness move from the first area to the second and then to the third areas as motivation for participation and as motivation as they progress toward self-sufficiency.”

Coffman's description of how people can advance from one area to the next defines the "work-first" approach to homelessness.

The resolution passed by Aurora City Council directs the Aurora city manager to work on creating the facility and finding a nonprofit to operate it. Aurora hopes to use federal COVID relief dollars and potentially private funding to pay for the campus, which will cost between $50 million and $70 million to create.

But Coffman has already predicted issues with getting funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which has operated for years under a housing-first approach. Coffman believes Aurora's best plan would be to simply avoid applying for HUD money so there would be no pressure to adhere to the housing-first model.

The resolution approved November 14 touches on this by stating that Aurora's new approach to homelessness will rely on "community support (individuals, business community, and foundations) rather than federal support if such support comes with inflexible requirements."

Denver and Aurora both provide emergency shelters

Since the pandemic began, the City of Denver has moved much of its emergency sheltering program to 24/7 models. That way, people staying in shelters can leave their belongings behind for the day in order to go to work or access services elsewhere. This transition to a 24/7 model answered a major criticism that advocates have had about Denver's previous system, which often required people to move their belongings back and forth every day.

Denver's emphasis on sheltering still has strong critics, who point out that plenty of people experiencing homelessness in Denver aren't suited for or comfortable with congregate shelter settings for a variety of reasons. Denver's shelters have capacity for approximately 2,100 people, with more space in overflow emergency facilities.

Aurora currently has the Comitis Crisis Center, which features emergency and transitional shelter for families, transitional shelter for veterans and emergency shelter for adults. Aurora's overall sheltering capacity is around 140 beds.

The emergency adult shelter offers stays that begin on the first day of each month. Comitis also has the Aurora Day Resource Center, which provides day sheltering.

Instead of relying solely on the Comitis offerings, the City of Aurora will bring its primary shelter onto the new campus that includes the three approaches to homelessness.

"The first will be a low-barrier shelter for anyone requiring services without any requirements being placed on them. It will be a 24/7 shelter that will not be time-limited nor force those experiencing homelessness to leave the shelter during the day, as many shelters do," Coffman says.

Both have camping bans

The main similarity between how Denver and Aurora approach homelessness is through camping bans. Denver's has been on the books since 2012; Aurora just adopted its ban this year. Both are cited by government workers when clearing out encampments that develop on public property.

Denver's ban has survived a failed ballot measure that sought to revoke the ordinance in 2019 and multiple lawsuits. However, there are restrictions in place on how the City of Denver can clear out encampments, thanks to a federal court settlement that came out of one of the lawsuits. Aurora kept those legal precedents in mind when enacting its own ban this March. The camping ban was one of the most consequential pieces of legislation that Coffman, a former Republican congressman, has pushed for; Democrats on Aurora City Council strongly opposed the measure.

The Aurora camping ban requires a minimum of 72 hours' notice before city officials sweep encampments. This falls within Denver's requirement under the Lyall settlement, an agreement that was struck following one of the homeless sweep lawsuits in Denver. According to the Lyall settlement, Denver must typically provide notice seven days before conducting a sweep and 48 hours in more emergent situations.

Although their timing varies, both cities would like to get people off the streets.

"The environmental conditions of living outdoors in unauthorized encampments, including lack of hygiene and exposure to severe weather, present a significant public health risk to individuals," says Woodbury. "Our unhoused neighbors deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. Individuals experiencing homelessness are best served by coming indoors, where they have access to case management, stabilizing services, medical and behavioral health care, and stronger outcomes to housing."
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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.

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