Aurora mayor’s hot take on homelessness denounced by Colorado elected officials, community leaders

Mike Coffman spent 7 days living on the streets in metro Denver. His main takeaway: homelessness is a lifestyle choice born out of ‘drug culture’

Sophie Elias, 40, packs up her belongings on Oct. 6, 2020, at the corner of 14th Avenue and Logan Street in downtown Denver during an encampment clearing. Elias, who was released from prison in April and has had difficulty finding employment because of her criminal record, said she’s on a housing waiting list through the St. Francis Center, a nearby homeless shelter.(Moe Clark/Colorado Newsline)

Dozens of Colorado elected officials and community leaders gathered via Zoom on Thursday to denounce recent comments from Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman after he spent seven days living on the streets in an attempt to better understand the Denver metro area’s growing homelessness crisis.

Coffman said in an interview with CBS4 published on Jan. 5  that the people he met while posing as a homeless man were not living on the streets out of necessity or due to economic conditions worsened by the pandemic but because it was a “lifestyle choice” born out of “drug culture.” In a follow up interview with CBS4, Coffman said homeless shelters are enabling a life of dependency and that he’d like to see drug treatment or job training be mandatory in order to access services.

“Homelessness is not a vacation for these individuals and it’s also not a situation one can easily exit from.”Eva Henry, Adams County commissioner and chair of the Westminster Housing Authority, Maiker Housing Partners 

“Mayor Coffman’s stunt in the news recently was disgusting and disappointing,” said Candi CdeBaca, Denver District 9 city councilwoman, during a press conference on Thursday. 

“It does what we expect people with privilege to do. It takes someone with privilege and centers them in a story to create an illusion of understanding,” she said. “To even paint this as a lifestyle choice is sad and irresponsible.”

Coffman’s comments received swift pushback on social media from homelessness providers, advocates and elected officials who said his remarks lacked nuance, perpetuated harmful stereotypes and ignored many of the root causes of homelessness — including lack of affordable housing, stagnant wages, barriers to employment, systemic racism and gaps in mental health and addiction treatment services.

Candi CdeBaca, Denver District 9 city councilwoman, speaks to a crowd gathered on the grass in front of the Denver City and County Building on Oct. 15, 2020, to draw attention to the city’s affordable housing and homelessness crisis, which disproportionately impacts Black people. (Moe Clark/Colorado Newsline)

“There’s a depth of despair and trauma that plagues individuals who are victims of generations of systemic injustices,” said Eva Henry, an Adams County commissioner and chair of the Westminster Housing Authority Maiker Housing Partners, during the remote press conference on Thursday. “Homelessness is not a vacation for these individuals and it’s also not a situation one can easily exit from.”

Henry, who shared during the call that she experienced housing instability as a young single parent living paycheck to paycheck, said that while Coffman’s intentions might have initially been well meaning, he inadvertently furthered the stigma that is often associated with people experiencing homelessness.

‘Put people in homes’

Coffman issued a statement on Wednesday clarifying his stance, saying that his intent was to differentiate between those staying in shelters versus encampments. “Those staying in the encampments were not interested in accessing the shelters because of their ‘rules’ so I view that as a choice,” he said. 

“If we are sick of seeing tents and people living on the streets, the best, most common sense, most immediate and most cost effective solution is to put people in homes.” — Vinnie Cervantes, an organizer with the Denver Alliance for Street Health Response

Coffman appeared to be present during the remote press conference on Thursday but kept his audio on mute. His office did not respond to a media request from Newsline.

Vinnie Cervantes, an organizer with the Denver Alliance for Street Health Responseput forth a handful of solutions during the call that could help address many of the issues typically brought up surrounding homelessness.

“We don’t need tours of homelessness, we need people to listen to those who’ve been speaking for years and decades on this very issue,” he said. “If we are sick of seeing tents and people living on the streets, the best, most common sense, most immediate and most cost effective solution is to put people in homes.”

He said that if elected officials and community members are tired of seeing people defecating in public, an easy solution would be to provide more public bathrooms and services to those bathrooms. “Things that the city of Denver is perfectly willing to do for any big event that happens in Civic Center Park,” he added.

A man gathers his belongings early in the morning on Nov. 30, 2020, as city officials begin to clear a large homeless encampment in Denver’s Five Points neighborhood. (Moe Clark/Colorado Newsline)

To address the accumulation of trash on the streets, he suggested providing more trash receptacles and dumpsters. In regards to substance abuse among people experiencing homelessness, Cervantes pointed to successful programs such as the Harm Reduction Action Center, which provides needle exchange and supervised use sites to build trust and connect people with addiction treatment and services. 

Shelley McKittrick, a consultant for the Colorado Village Collaborative and Solid Earth Communities and former board president of the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative, gave an impassioned speech during the press conference.

“I think Mayor Coffman’s shallow performative exercise was ill-informed,” she said. “And, in my opinion, that’s what happens when you ignore expert advice. Advocates are experts. Advocates have decades of experience. Advocates have been risking their own lives by staying on the front lines during the COVID epidemic.”

During the call, McKittrick stressed Aurora’s high eviction rate, which is the 33rd highest in the country, is helping to drive the area’s homelessness crisis and will likely worsen given the economic conditions brought on by the pandemic.

“We will see an increase in homelessness when the eviction ban goes away,” she said. “We will have people flooding our streets and then Mayor Coffman, talk to them in five years when they haven’t gotten a home. They may be using meth and saying, ‘I’m outside because I want to use meth.’ But that’s the end of the story, not the beginning of the story.”

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