Conservative Aurora lawmakers narrowly finalize homeless tenting ban 

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A camping ban approved on March 28, 20222 would give homeless people camping within city limits 72 hours to relocate, on condition that shelter space is provided by the city.
Photo by PHILIP B. POSTON/Sentinel Colorado

aurora borealis | Lawmakers voted Monday for the third and final time to ban unauthorized camping in the Aurora, laying the groundwork for a more aggressive policy of dismantling homeless camps.

The ban codifies much of the city’s current stance on homeless campers, who are generally asked to leave a campground 72 hours in advance before facing the possibility of a fine or arrest. City-approved shelters must be available to accommodate all residents of a camp before it can be swept after the 72-hour period has elapsed.

Proponents argue that this will reduce the number of campers along streets and public squares. Opponents say it will only push vulnerable homeless people to other public places to pitch tents, as bans have done in Denver and other cities.

Unauthorized camping on private property has always been a case of trespassing.

Aurora is currently using a mosaic of laws and regulations to clear camps. Unauthorized camping would be made illegal per se by the ban, and councilors have said they expect the result of the ban to be more consistent enforcement of camps.

Despite the fact homeless people could be arrested if they refuse to leave a campground, Mayor Mike Coffman again said during Monday’s city council meeting that the ban does not criminalize homeless people — unless they refuse orders from police to stop themselves to move – and it connects them to resources by herding them into a hideout.

“I think this is an important first step in not only cleaning up our city, but helping those who are in these camps who would then need to go to a safe place where there are services,” Coffman said .

The ban was rejected last year by what was then a narrow liberal majority. Coffman brought the ban back this year after November’s election installed a narrow Conservative majority on the city council.

An amendment to the ban introduced by Councilman Crystal Murillo also directs City Manager Jim Twombly to create a policy for the safekeeping of the personal belongings left behind by campers who have been evicted by a sweeper.

Murillo made her amendment on March 14 — the amendment meant the ordinance had to go through an additional round of voting after it was approved that night, as well as the night of February 28.

As on two previous occasions, council members Francoise Bergan, Curtis Gardner, Danielle Jurinsky, Steve Sundberg and Dustin Zvonek voted in favor of the ban on Monday, while council members Alison Coombs, Angela Lawson, Juan Marcano, Ruben Medina and Murillo cast their “no” votes.

Coffman, who reinstated the ban earlier this year after it was shelved by a divided city council in August, again broke the tie in favor of the measure.

Opponents continued to criticize Coffman’s proposal and camping bans in general as ineffective, and questioned why the city hadn’t invested in supportive and affordable housing or other homelessness strategies instead.

“We’ve been doing some things about affordable housing and homelessness for years. But the number of people who are homeless and on the verge of homelessness makes it clear that what we are doing is not enough,” said Coombs. “We continue to have the problems and they continue to get worse.”

Coombs said she believes investing in housing is cheaper in the long run than enforcing a camping ban.

Marcano again unsuccessfully applied to table the vote on the ban indefinitely. He pointed to Denver’s camping ban as a cautionary tale, saying that Aurora’s ban, like Denver’s, would result in larger camps that require more shelter resources to clear immediately and are therefore more difficult for cities to address .

“Real solutions look like permanent supportive housing,” Marcano said. “It’s not going to get people off the streets. This will not do what it is billed for. We’re all going to be very frustrated when we start spending even more resources moving people around the city and have nothing to show for it.”

Marcano and others also explained, as they have done in the past, that the city likely does not have enough housing to accommodate all of Aurora’s homeless campers.

A 2021 survey of the city’s homeless residents, commissioned by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, found 594 people. Depending on weather conditions, there may be less than half as many shelters available in Aurora. Service providers generally consider the HUD point-in-time survey as an undercount.

On February 28, council members voted to direct Twombly to create more protective resources to meet the goals of the ban. A majority of council members last week signaled support for converting the Aurora Day Resource Center into 24-hour accommodation for up to 75 people, which city officials estimate will cost about $750,000 upfront and $1.35 million in dollars per year will cost.

Lana Dalton, manager of homelessness programs, told the council it would take about a month or two to set up the expanded housing at the ADRC.

On Monday, supporters of the ban insisted it would address unsanitary conditions in some camps and protect both campers and the public. Bergan mentioned other urban areas like Seattle and Portland that are turning to camping bans to address homelessness issues.

“I think we’re trying to help those in the camps get out of this situation,” Bergan said. “And obviously if we can help them with drug addiction and mental health issues, that’s a lot more compassionate than leaving them in a camp that isn’t sanitized.”

The ban is being enforced by police, despite calls from Police Commissioner Vanessa Wilson not to involve officers in what she says is a societal issue, not a criminal one.

Enforcement of the ban could begin in 30 days, at the end of April.