Homeless population growing in Aurora: Mayor plans to reintroduce camping ban

Problem Solvers

AURORA, Colo. (KDVR) — Aurora’s homeless population saw a 280% increase in its count of people trying to access shelter beds this year compared to last year.

A city survey found Aurora has nearly 600 homeless people. The city admits that’s an undercount because it doesn’t include people who choose to live in encampments on public rights of way.

“What I learned is the two populations are completely separate. People in shelters never go to encampments. People in encampments don’t go to shelters and shelters are where you can access services,” Mayor Mike Coffman said.

Coffman told the Problem Solvers that city outreach workers offer services to people living in the encampments but find few takers.

“What we should not do is think we can spend more money to lure them into change. I think there has to be a tough-love approach,” Coffman said.

The mayor spent a week in January living undercover as a homeless person, which led him to introduce a camping ban in August. It failed on a 5-5 tie vote in the city council.

Coffman can reintroduce the vote six months after it failed, and the mayor has told FOX31 he plans to do that, especially because city elections on Nov. 2 swept conservatives into power on the city council.

It may not matter. By law, Aurora can’t enforce a camping ban unless it has somewhere to send homeless campers who occupy public space.

‘One of the biggest strains I’ve seen on the homeless services’

“This is probably one of the biggest strains I’ve seen on the homeless services in a long time,” said Mike Marsico, chief clinical officer for Mile High Behavioral Health.

Marsico’s agency helps operate the Aurora Day Resource Center and the Comitis Crisis Center, an emergency overnight shelter.

Comitis has 150 beds for adults over the age of 18. Individuals are not allowed to stay for more than 30 days straight.

The City of Aurora has 30 sanctioned tents for chronically homeless people at a Salvation Army location. It has plans to serve another 90 people by adding 30 sanctioned tents and 30 pallet shelters that house two people each.

The city council will be asked to approve $1.57 million of its American Rescue Plan Act funds to pay for the additional safe outdoor spaces for 90 homeless people.

When asked how many beds are used each night at the Comitis Center, Marsico said the facility is “100% full … by the end of the day, we have a waiting list.”

Visiting an Aurora homeless camp

The Problem Solvers visited a homeless camp with Coffman in late August along Mississippi Avenue and Interstate 225, next to a Best Buy parking lot. We met a woman named Jaclyn Lopez who had been living there for about 10 days.

“I’m not ashamed to be right here, but I shouldn’t have to be right here,” Lopez said through tears.

She told us she had been a flight attendant for United Airlines for 17 years when she got laid off during the pandemic.

“I got cancer and became non-essential,” Lopez said.

Eventually, she stopped receiving unemployment because of verification issues with the state. The Problem Solvers couldn’t confirm the woman’s particular case but have reported on this as an ongoing issue for thousands of Coloradans.

Lopez said she was kicked out of her place when the federal eviction moratorium ended Aug. 1. A few days later, the car she was living in was stolen by a man who she said punched her in the eye and grabbed the car keys out of her shopping basket in a parking lot.

“Not everybody out here is by choice. They’re not. They’re not,” Lopez insisted.

FOX31 was not able to confirm all of Lopez’s life events, although we did confirm she reported her car stolen to Aurora Police.  She told us she wants help but claims the only offer she has received from outreach workers is to put her on a waiting list for housing.

“I’ve applied at Best Buy, but the thing is, where am I going to take a shower? If I don’t have a car, and there’s not a bus stop for me to get to the day center to take a shower,” Lopez said.

Lopez wouldn’t stay at the encampment for long. Five days after the Problem Solvers interviewed Lopez, the strip of land along I-225 and Mississippi Avenue was cleaned out by the Colorado Department of Transportation, which owns the property.

Camping bans may not be technically on the books in Aurora, but the city is allowed to do large-scale cleanups. Public health cleanups of trash, which can include drug needles and human feces, are permitted.

In the last six months of 2020, the city completed 26 abatements, and 42 large-scale cleanups have already been completed in 2021.

Aurora spends approximately $4.25 million dollars a year on homelessness services.

“I want to focus our resources on convincing people they need to change then providing the resources for them to change,” Coffman said.

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