Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman didn’t claim to have found the solution to homelessness after going undercover recently and spending a week on his city’s streets. He did glean some firsthand insights into the scale and nature of the problem; kudos to him for taking the initiative to better understand the issues involved and what drives them.
It’s also a safe bet even so brief a sojourn among the homeless left Coffman better informed than some critics who emerged afterward, oddly enough, to denounce him for his engagement on the issue. They hastily staged a virtual news conference last week following media coverage of Coffman’s stint on the streets, and they chastised him, in part, for observing that some of those he encountered had made a “lifestyle choice.”
Coffman made that remark to CBS Denver, which first reported on his experience, and he elaborated for The Gazette. He made clear he was referring to those who insist on squatting in public in ad hoc camps and refuse accommodations at shelters. He was talking about the festering sites of wretched squalor, rampant drug and alcohol abuse, and crime, amid clusters of tents, boxes, lean-tos and the like that pop up around metro Denver. They pose a threat of theft, violence and other maladies to the surrounding community. Campers panhandle and harass residents, shopkeepers, tourists and others. They undermine all our quality of life.
“I thought that the encampments were a lifestyle choice. They chose not to go into shelters because of the rules and I think drug use was a common denominator that I saw,” he said. “It’s not a choice that they’re addicted to drugs — maybe at that point it’s not a choice — but it seems to me they have the option to go to a shelter and chose not to.”
That sounds like a pretty reasonable thumbnail of at least one segment of the homeless population, and we laud Coffman for articulating it as his city’s chief elected official. He based his take on his own up-close-and-personal experience — which is more than at least some of his detractors can claim.
Of course, that didn’t stop them from crying foul. Some of those who lashed out were among the usual, politically ambitious upstarts and fringe activists — the ones who view homelessness as political capital rather than a social ill.
Yet, some other critics were longtime, respected advocates for the homeless who, arguably, should know better. Like John Parvensky, president and CEO of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless.
“People like to have agency over their condition and when they can convince themselves that they’re there by choice it eases the pain,” Parvensky told The Gazette. “When you get to the root cause, you see that it’s not a real choice.”
Shelley McKittrick, a consultant with the Colorado Village Collaborative, took that tack a step further. She rationalized prevalent substance abuse among the homeless on the streets as an effect rather than a cause — something over which they presumably have little control.
“If you tell people to change before they get housed, they’re not going to get housed because you cannot rehabilitate on the street.”
What these critics sidestepped is that many, possibly most of those in the hardcore, chronically homeless population often refuse both housing and rehab. They’re often enough the ones who move from camp to camp; who throng the streets; who wander drunk or high in front of cars; who curse and lash out at passersby; who beg incessantly; who fight and sometimes seriously injure or kill one another in the camps. They are the ones Coffman was talking about.
He was not talking about the many homeless who spend the night in cars with their families after losing jobs; who bunk at relatives’ homes for a time or at motels; who willingly if perhaps reluctantly stay at shelters as they try to get back on their feet. Nor was he referring to those who are making an earnest and responsible attempt to kick a drug or alcohol addiction.
The awkward attempt to shame Coffman for daring to call it as he saw it smacks of resentment at being upstaged on an issue they have yet to solve — getting the chronically homeless off our streets. Their approach to addressing homelessness — typically, more public funding, like last November’s Ballot Measure 2B, ill-advisedly approved by Denver voters — has failed historically to help the hardcore homeless and likely will continue to fail them.
The push-back at Coffman for speaking up — and the absurd advocacy among some of his critics for allowing homeless camps in particular to proliferate — is an admission of defeat.