By now, you have likely heard about my decision to immerse myself into the metro’s homeless community for a week. Like many of you, I had never experienced life in an encampment or a shelter. To better understand those challenges and have more informed discussions about resolving them, I wanted to live them and feel them to the extent possible.
Denver Mayor Michael Hancock’s office had reached out to me earlier in December to see if I was interested in working with him, and Lakewood’s Mayor Adam Paul, to jointly develop a metro-wide approach to the growing regional problem of homelessness. I am grateful for the invite and believe we will not solve this crisis by operating in silos.
During my experience, I presented myself as a homeless veteran (I am a veteran) and stayed in one shelter in Aurora, two shelters in Denver, and in an encampment in the vicinity of Lincoln and Speer in downtown Denver.
To the credit of the shelters, every time I went to a new one, I was asked if I wanted help from a menu of services ranging from mental health therapy to drug and alcohol counseling to job placement. I was impressed by the range of services offered to anyone wanting to improve their circumstances. In the shelters, I observed three categories of people experiencing homelessness: the mentally ill, the chronically homeless suffering from drug and alcohol addictions, and those displaced by economic circumstances who were finding work and using the shelter as a temporary means to save enough money to get back on their feet.
In the encampments, the experience was entirely different.
What was surprising to me about the shelter population and the encampment inhabitants was that I found them to be two very distinct groups that never intersected. I never found a shelter person who had stayed in an encampment and an encampment inhabitant who had ever stayed in a shelter. The encampment inhabitants tended to be much younger than those in the shelters. Many of them reminded me of the counter-cultural hippie movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s where “dropping out” of society and living in a communal setting, with the common denominator being drug use, defined their movement. Only for that generation, it was largely marijuana and hallucinogenic drugs. For the encampment generation today, the drug use is much more serious with the dominant drug being crystal methamphetamine. It was common to see these young people shooting up or smoking meth in glass pipes.
The advocates for the encampments want us to believe that the reasons why the encampment inhabitants never access shelters are because they are afraid of the congregate living arrangements during a pandemic, are concerned about having their few possessions stolen, or fear for their safety. Nothing could be further from the truth. In the shelters, I always felt safe, I was always required to wear a mask, was constantly reminded about social distancing, and I never had anything stolen from me. In the encampments, I never felt safe, no one ever wore a mask or even concerned themselves with social distancing, and I had a number of items stolen.
The real reason why the encampment inhabitants refuse to access the shelters is simple — the shelters have rules. One rule, in particular, keeps the encampment inhabitants out of shelters and that rule is that drugs and drug use are prohibited.
I know that my observations of the encampments hit a raw nerve with many of the so-called advocates for people experiencing homelessness because they did not comport with their narrative that these individuals are there through circumstances beyond their control and that the encampment lifestyle is not a choice. I disagree. My observations about the encampments have reinvigorated an important debate because we will never be able to solve the problem of the encampments if we cannot first accurately describe the problem.
Mike Coffman is the mayor of Aurora
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