AURORA, Colo. (CBS4)– Homeless advocates are angry at Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman after he decided to spend a week wandering the streets and sleeping on sidewalks to learn more about our homeless. Coffman spent 7 days and nights in camps and shelters and shared his experience with only CBS4.
He wanted to see firsthand what the problems are so he can he help find solutions, but homeless advocates called it a stunt. Even those who gave him credit for trying say he doesn’t get the complexities of the issue.
“You can’t just dip your toe in and out of poverty and homelessness,” says Adams County Commissioner Eva Henry.
She and other county commissioners and city councilmembers lashed out at Coffman saying he can’t understand homelessness from one week on the streets and in shelters.
“There’s a depth of despair and trauma that plagues these individuals who are victims of generations worth of systematic injustices,” Henry says.
They didn’t deny that there is widespread substance abuse but took issue with Coffman’s assertion that people living in encampments have access to shelter but choose a drug lifestyle.
“In my opinion, people become substances users when they are on the streets because they don’t know how they’re going to sleep, they don’t know if they can stay up so they don’t get raped or beaten up, they are using drugs to escape their trauma,” says Shelley McKittrick, a consultant with Colorado Village Collaborative.
Broomfield City Councilmember Sharon Tessier added, “There are myriad of reasons why we are seeing people out on street.”
But the advocates didn’t entirely agree on a solution.
“The only solution to homelessness is housing,” says Denver City Councilmember Candi CdeBaca.
“Our people need help, we need help to help people on the streets, we need medical people on the streets,” says Demetria Skipper with Living Water Ministry.
One area where they agreed with Coffman is that current policies aren’t working and a regional approach is needed. Coffman plans to work with the mayors of Denver and Lakewood on a metro-wide approach to homelessness. The advocates say they should be included in the discussions.
“Our goal is to provide an alternate vision to solving housing and homelessness issues,” says Aurora City Councilmember Crystal Murillo.
“Why not come together as a community to generate the resources that we know we have at our disposal, to provide job assistance, to provide housing assistance,” says Englewood City Councilmember John Stone.
The advocates didn’t specifically address the changes Coffman is proposing (including requiring people who live in shelters to commit to improving their situation through drug treatment or job training, for example). Coffman acknowledges not everyone is able to do so but he says many are and should. He says the only solution to the encampments is to dismantle them although he’s not proposing a camping ban in Aurora.
Coffman knew there would be people who would criticize him for what he did, but he says he’s glad that — if nothing else — it has now touched off a debate on the issue that may lead to real solutions.