Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman facing heat for proposal to ban homeless encampments

A proposed ban on urban camping in Aurora, which is expected to be introduced by Mayor Mike Coffman later this week, is already being lambasted by some of the city’s elected leaders and on social media as the wrong approach to dealing with a growing homeless population.

Aurora Councilman Juan Marcano pulled no punches Tuesday, calling the proposed ban “inhumane, a waste of taxpayer dollars and a waste of police resources.”

“This is the kind of bad public policy that will appeal to some people’s worst instincts while producing no positive results,” Marcano said. “It is a perfect encapsulation of ‘strong and wrong’ policymaking.”

Coffman, a Republican who represented Aurora as a U.S. congressman and became mayor in 2019, said the problem of homeless encampments in the city “is growing, is increasingly more visible and I’m getting lots of complaints from our residents about it.”

“Yes, they are sympathetic about the plight of the homeless living in encampments, but they are really sick of all the trash that builds up around the encampments,” Coffman said of residents.

A camping ban in Colorado’s third-largest city would follow similar moves in Denver and Boulder, along with other metro-area cities, like Centennial and Parker. Denver has faced legal challenges to its ban, as the city has struggled to enforce the measure in an environment of rapidly escalating home and rental prices and lagging inventory.

Coffman said Tuesday he’s not calling for a blanket ban, but wants to designate areas where “there can be services provided to help them get mental health care, medical treatment, get sober, get job training and get a job where they can eventually move into their own housing.”

The mayor hopes forthcoming federal funds from the American Rescue Plan will help pay for a facility that “could be part shelter and part of it dedicated to a safe camping space.”

Aurora cleaned up 29 encampments in the city over the last year or so, according to Jessica Prosser, director of Housing and Community Services. The Colorado Department of Transportation has done about a half dozen cleanups per year of additional camps in the Interstate 225 corridor, she said.

Aurora residents sent in about 900 camping complaints in the past year, Prosser said, though approximately half were about people living in recreational vehicles. The city has 150 emergency shelter beds currently, but had an additional 100 beds over the winter, Prosser said.

The city counted 427 unhoused people in 2020, up from 389 in 2019 and 346 in 2017.

It’s not clear when the measure might come before the city council for a vote, but Coffman’s announcement of his plans to propose it Thursday it was immediately criticized on Twitter, but received support on Facebook.

Urban camping bans have become a flashpoint between those who claim they essentially criminalize homelessness and those who say permitting tents to pop up where people please poses a health hazard and a safety concern for those who live in or visit a neighborhood.

The bans “only serve to move people experiencing homelessness from place to place,” said Cathy Alderman, spokeswoman for the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, adding they have “devastating impacts on those individuals — further traumatizing them and making them less trusting of government, outreach workers, and community members.”

She suggested that “investments in housing and services is the immediate and long-term solution” and that “penalizing homelessness is short-sighted and cruel.”