By now you’ve probably heard of my decision to immerse yourself in the subway homeless community for a week. Like many of you, I had never lived in a camp or shelter. In order to better understand these challenges and have more informed discussions about their solution, I wanted to live them and feel them as much as possible.
The Denver Mayor’s office Michael Hancock reached out to me in early December to see if I was interested in working with him and Lakewood Mayor Adam Paul to share a metro-wide approach to the growing regional problem of homelessness to develop. I am grateful for the invitation and believe that we will not solve this crisis by operating in silos.
During my experience, I presented myself as a homeless veteran (I’m a veteran) and stayed at an Aurora animal shelter, two Denver animal shelters, and a warehouse near Lincoln and Speer in downtown Denver.
In the shelters’ credit, every time I went to a new one, I was asked if I would like help from a range of services ranging from psychotherapeutic therapy to drug and alcohol counseling to job placement. I was impressed by the range of services for everyone who wants to improve their living conditions. In the shelters, I observed three categories of people affected by homelessness: the mentally ill, chronically homeless with drug and alcohol addiction, and people displaced by economic circumstances and finding work and using the shelter as a temporary means, to get back on your feet to save enough money.
In the camps, the experience was very different.
What surprised me about the shelter population and the camp residents was that I found that they were two very different groups that never crossed. I have never found a person who has lived in a camp and a resident of the camp who has ever lived in a shelter. The residents of the camp were usually much younger than those in the emergency shelters. Many of them reminded me of the countercultural hippie movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, where “leaving” society and living in a community where the common denominator was drug use defined their movement. For this generation only, it was mostly marijuana and hallucinogenic drugs. For today’s generation of camps, drug use is much more serious, with the dominant drug being crystal methamphetamine. It was common to see these young people shooting meth or smoking meth in glass pipes.
Camp advocates want us to believe that the reasons camp residents never have access to temporary shelters is because they are afraid of the community’s living conditions during a pandemic, worried that their few possessions will be stolen or that they fear for their safety. Nothing is further from the truth. In the shelters, I always felt safe, always had to wear a mask, was constantly reminded of social distancing, and nothing was ever stolen from me. I never felt safe in the camps, no one ever wore a mask or engaged in social distancing, and some items were stolen from me.
The real reason why camp residents refuse access to the shelters is simple – the shelters have rules. In particular, one rule keeps camp residents away from shelters, and that rule is that drugs and drug use are prohibited.
I know that my observations of the camps struck a nerve with many of the so-called proponents of people affected by homelessness because they disagreed with their story that these people are there because of circumstances beyond their control, and that the lifestyle of the camp is not a choice. I do not agree. My observations about the camps have revived an important debate because we can never solve the problem of the camps unless we can first clearly describe the problem.
Mike Coffman is the Mayor of Aurora, Colorado
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