Aurora City Council Passes Controversial Urban Camping Ban
After a contentious hours-long debate, Aurora City Council voted six to five to approve an urban camping ban that will be used to justify dispersing homeless encampments.
“This proposal is the only step we can take as local government to start pushing some of these people who are in encampments, who have dissociated themselves from society and support, into a situation of shelter where they can to obtain [services]“, General Council Representative Dustin Zvonek said, before voting for the ban at the February 28 meeting.
The ordinance, introduced by Mayor Mike Coffman, prohibits camping on public property and allows city officials to sweep campsites after giving a minimum of 72 hours’ notice and ensuring there is space adequate shelter available for camp residents.
The vote fell largely along partisan lines. All five Republicans on the board voted in favor of the ban, while the four Democrats and one unaffiliated member opposed the measure. Since there was a five-to-five tie, Mayor Coffman broke the tie, approving the measure he had proposed.
Prior to the vote, Aurora City Council members listened to community members in an extensive public hearing. A minority of them encouraged the council to pass the ordinance.
“It’s not enough for our citizens to be placed on the sidewalk or under a bridge or in our sewers. As a state, we are better than that. We are our brothers’ keepers. And sometimes that means we have to help our citizens when they don’t seem to know they need help,” said Danny Moore, a Republican who served on Colorado’s congressional redistricting committee.
But the vast majority of the dozens of people who spoke at the hearing, including representatives from Healthier Colorado and the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, testified against the order.
“If you take me, I will die alone. Or you’ll have me locked up in jail by your friends. Do I deserve this? asked Omen Cross, who identified himself as a homeless veteran living in Aurora. “Mr. Mayor, I officially challenge you for the title of mayor,” Cross said aloud, prompting a reprimand from Pro Tem Mayor Francoise Bergan, who was presiding over the debate. Bergan then ordered the council to a ten-minute recess before resuming the meeting.
Aurora’s new camping ban aligns the homelessness policy of the metro area’s second-largest municipality and Colorado’s third-largest city with that of the city of Denver, which has implemented a camping ban since 2012.
Coffman, who lost his 6th congressional district seat to Democrat Jason Crow in 2018, was elected mayor of Aurora in late 2019. He first proposed the idea of establishing a camping ban in October 2020 At the end of that year, Coffman spent a week living anonymously on the streets of metro Denver; the mayor stayed in a shelter and also lived outdoors, where a camera crew filmed him.
In later coverage of “Homeless Mike,” Mayor Coffman told CBS4, “These encampments aren’t a product of an economy under COVID. They’re not a product of rental rates, housing. They’re the product of a drug culture.” The people he met were not homeless for lack of shelter, he added. “Absolutely not. It’s a lifestyle choice, and it’s a very dangerous lifestyle choice.”
Some of those who testified against the order criticized Coffman for the passage of “Homeless Mike”. “It was a vacation for you,” said Joel Northam, a Socialism and Liberation Party organizer who gathered members to attend the hearing. Northam faced criminal charges after participating in a protest demanding justice for Elijah McClain outside Aurora Police Department headquarters; these charges were eventually dropped.
Coffman had formally introduced a camping ban proposal last summer, but was unable to secure a majority vote in August. Then, in November, the political tides shifted on Aurora City Council.
After the election, Coffman reintroduced his camping ban proposal.
While violating Aurora’s camping ban does not result in an explicit penalty, people who refuse to leave a campsite could be subject to a citation for violating a lawful order, which can result in a sentence of up to 364 days in jail and a fine of up to $2,650.
The Denver Police Department rarely issues tickets for violations of the city’s camping ban. But authorities frequently cite the law when asking people to move, and in doing so it disrupts the connections that service providers have made with homeless people.
Denver got into legal trouble over its camping ban; i October 2020 Andy McNulty of the law firm Killmer, Lane & Newman filed a lawsuit on behalf of homeless plaintiffs and Denver Homeless Out Loud, which resulted in an order from Judge William J. Martinez of the Court of U.S. district of Colorado requiring a week’s notice before the city conducts a sweep.
In crafting his own proposal that calls for 72 hours’ notice, Coffman says he reviewed that order, as well as policies in Boston, Oakland and Arvada.
The 2021 point-in-time tally showed there were 594 people staying in shelters in Aurora in a single night in January this year. (Service providers did not conduct a homeless count in 2021, due to concerns about the spread of COVID; 2022 count results have not yet been released.) Aurora has a capacity of emergency accommodation – including pallet houses, secure camping sites and secure parking sites – of about 300 beds; it can increase capacity in cold weather, officials say.
There are also countless people living in unprotected environments. So far, outreach workers have worked with the Aurora Police Department to clear the encampments, but there has been no 72-hour timeline.