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On December 26, Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman tweeted that he was going on vacation.
“I haven’t taken my time since I was sworn in as Aurora Mayor on December 2, 2019, and I have decided to take much-needed free time from noon today through January 2, 2021,” Coffman wrote. “I will stay in the area but won’t post on social media, answer calls and emails, or answer media inquiries.”
But Coffman was away from home during his free time, trying to unwind from a busy year in Aurora politics. Instead, he spent a week homeless on Metro Denver trying to get a better grip on the homelessness problem.
“I think the week really helped me understand the complexities of this issue,” said Coffman, a Republican who previously represented Aurora and the surrounding communities as US representative for Colorado’s 6th Congressional District. He only told one person he’d be on the street for the week: Shaun Boyd from CBS4, who interviewed him before and after he was homeless. CBS4 also sent a cameraman to film Coffman at various points throughout the week for a piece that aired on “Homeless Mike” on January 5th.
Coffman stayed in the Denver and Aurora quarters for four nights; He slept on three outside, two of them in a warehouse just off Speer on Sixth Avenue. “I was probably not as well equipped as I should have been,” admits Coffman, who packed a sleeping bag, tarpaulin and backpack – but no money or food.
His takeaway food?
“These warehouses are not a product of an economy under COVID. They are not a product of rental prices and housing. They are a product of a drug culture,” Coffman Boyd said in the CBS4 story.
The people he met were not homeless because of the lack of homelessness, he added, “Absolutely not. It’s a lifestyle choice, and it’s a very dangerous lifestyle choice.”
Service providers who have seen the CBS4 story applaud Coffman’s interest in investigating the issues behind homelessness – but their praise for his efforts ends there. Coffman’s conclusions miss the mark, they say, suggesting that Aurora’s Mayor is oversimplifying a very complex subject.
“I don’t think it’s a lifestyle choice. We have people who liaise with camps on a regular basis. We have targeted many of our interventions with people in camps. It is certainly not a very easy lifestyle, especially in Denver Constant Sweeps “says John Parvensky, executive director of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. “If it’s a lifestyle choice, it’s one that was made out of desperation and isn’t a real choice.”
“The data just doesn’t support that,” adds Cole Chandler, whose organization, the Colorado Village Collaborative, runs one of Denver’s safe campsites. “Nobody just chooses to live outdoors 365 nights a year. The real data point is the fact that for the Denver Social Impact Bond project … the 250 most expensive people in town were put into the system and she asked them asked if they wanted to come into an apartment and only one person said no. “
“While we appreciate Mayor Coffman’s interest in understanding the root causes of homelessness, from decades of experience working with vulnerable youth, we know that homelessness is incredibly complex. The youth we serve have experienced myriad traumas Abuse, familial instability, addiction and victimization survived These young people are remarkably resilient even if they become homeless during a pandemic and the ensuing recession, “said Christina Carlson, CEO of Urban Peak, which operates several homeless shelters in Denver.
Parvensky believes that Coffman’s time on the street simply reinforced what he believed for years about homelessness.
“Rejecting the real causes and problems of homelessness, and more likely blaming the victim, seems to motivate many people who come from his side of the political spectrum rather than really understanding what it means to be homeless.” Says Parvensky. “What are the conditions that lead to what long-term life on the street means to people and how they turn to alcohol and other substances to deal with it.”
But Coffman stands by his observations. “One of the common denominators in the camps was drug use,” he says. “It wasn’t marijuana and alcohol. It was crack cocaine, it was meth, and in some cases it was heroin.”
While Parvensky recognizes that drug use “is a problem among people who are homeless,” Coffman simplifies the problem. “It is certainly prevalent throughout our society in all communities, poor communities, and wealthy communities. The people who end up on the streets do not have the safety nets and longer term substance treatment options that they may need. … Once you have these Possibility for safety. The last thing you want to do is get back to that experience. “
And Chandler questions Coffman’s claim that economic factors do not contribute to the growth of homeless camps. “It’s just not true,” says Chandler. “The root of the problem is that house prices have skyrocketed and wages have stagnated over the course of several decades.”
About a week before Coffman turned into “Homeless Mike,” he said he had been contacted by Mayor Michael Hancock’s government about setting up a homeless task force in the Subway Mayor, including Adam Paul, Mayor of Lakewood, gonna belong.
Coffman had already considered adopting a Denver program and then decided against it. While the Mayor of Aurora came up with the idea of introducing a camping ban similar to the one Hancock signed in 2012 late last year, he’s now withdrawn that idea – but not because of his experience on the streets.
“I did it because I am concerned that there is a lot of jurisdiction in these camping bans that you need to do to weather a legal challenge,” said Coffman. “There are so many requirements that the cure can be worse than the disease.” For example, the city of Denver has faced several legal challenges regarding its camping ban, including one currently being tried in the U.S. District Court of Colorado.
But after his nights on the street, Coffman isn’t a fan of camps either.
“I don’t see any redeeming properties in these camps,” he says. “I just don’t know. I think they’re a public health and safety nuisance.”
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Conor McCormick-Cavanagh works for Westword where he covers a range of topics including local politics, immigration and homelessness. He previously worked as a journalist in Tunisia and enjoys talking about New York sports.