AURORA, Colo. (CBS4) – Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman has a new understanding of what he thinks is driving the growing numbers of homeless people in Aurora and Denver after he was covered up and became one of them. For a week, Coffman was known only as “Homeless Mike” to those he met while walking the streets, sleeping on sidewalks, and documenting his journey in text messages to CBS4 policy specialist Shaun Boyd.
He took no money, no food, and lost what little he had when his backpack was stolen.
“It wasn’t fun. It was really hard … but incredibly powerful, “he said to Boyd after the experience, adding,” I never want to do it again. “
He says what he saw in camps and shelters shocked him, and the changes he is now proposing could come as a shock to those who believe the homeless problem is only about housing. As Mayor, Coffman wanted to know what was behind the growing number of homeless people – not those who study it – but those who live it. As one of them, he received answers that were not as expected.
“I really thought that the numbers would be driven by the economy, by COVID. They were not.”
Most of the people he met had lived in the emergency shelters for years. Many, he says, came from abroad.
“I would speak to them and they would have a vision of what they might want to do, but they had absolutely no plan to get there. So I would say, “Okay, what’s the next step?” and there was no next step. “
What he saw in the camps was far more disturbing. He says that young people are open to meth, heroin, and cocaine use and that their addiction is relieved by those who believe they will help.
“It’s kind of this drug culture that is carried by a lot of well-meaning people who give them money, bring them food, other necessities for them.”
Boyd asked him what he would say to these well-meaning people. He replied, “I would say that you are hurting these people. You are really prolonging a really negative lifestyle that will ultimately kill these people. “
“But they won’t go to the shelters,” Boyd said. “That’s the thing,” he replied. “We cannot further subsidize a lifestyle that is so harmful to them, and I think this is a public safety and health issue for the entire community. There are no redeeming properties of the camps, none at all. I think they are a public safety and public health threat and they must go. The sooner we can dismantle it, the better. “
According to Coffman, the accommodations he visits also enable a life of dependency. While he says that some people there have mental health problems that make it impossible for them to have a permanent job, most, he says, can work.
“You should do something. You should sweep the floor or mop the floor or you should help in the kitchen, but there was no responsibility whatsoever. “
Those who remain in publicly funded housing should be required to receive drug treatment or professional training.
“You have to commit to doing something positive in return for tax breaks.”
“And if not?” Asked Boyd. “Won’t we have more people on the streets?”
“I think we’re not helping them,” he replied. “I think at some point you have to say: ‘Enough is enough. ‘I know this is a tough decision to make, but if you’re just subsidizing a lifestyle that is destructive to them and their families, who are you helping? We have to have a different vision to be truly compassionate to the homeless and fair to America’s taxpayers. “
What we’re doing now, he says, is clearly not working. He’s seen this firsthand. “It was really hard,” Coffman said to Boyd. “But was it worth it?” She asked.
“It was absolutely worth it,” he said.
While thinking about banning camping in Aurora before his week on the street, Coffman said he wouldn’t look for one now. Aurora has a much smaller camping problem than Denver, even though Denver has a camping ban. What he’d like to see, he says, may be a public awareness campaign urging people not to bring groceries and other foods that allow people to pitch tents, sleep on sidewalks, and use drugs in urban areas.
A week before Coffman took to the streets, he received a call from Denver Mayor Michael Hancock who wants to work on a metro-wide approach to tackling homelessness. Coffman will suggest that this involves some personal responsibility for the homeless.
As a state lawmaker, in the late 1990s, Coffman sponsored the bill that created the Colorado Works Program to provide temporary support, much like he did, to families in need who can show they are trying to improve their situation from homeless would like.