Coffman: Aurora and Denver have vastly different approaches to homelessness — work first and housing first

Homelessness and its effects have become some of the most critical issues of our time across Colorado and much of the nation. After all my years in American government, I have learned that tough challenges like these require innovative thought, persistence, and the need for proven, long-term solutions.

While the efforts to tackle these issues in the city and county of Denver tend to dominate headlines, I believe it is important to highlight and clarify the work we are doing in Aurora and provide a reminder that Aurora’s approach is distinctly different from Denver’s approach.

The first part of Aurora’s new strategy involves the purchase and renovation of the Crowne Plaza Hotel and Convention Center near Chambers Road and Interstate 70 in Aurora which, when renovated and updated, will serve as a regional navigation and resource center to help individuals experiencing homelessness.

The money necessary for this project was made possible by the American Recovery Plan Act (ARPA), which was passed by Congress and signed into law by the president during the height of the pandemic in 2021.

The city of Aurora used some of its own federal ARPA dollars and received additional ARPA funds from the state of Colorado, Douglas County, Arapahoe County and Adams County to buy and renovate the facility in exchange for agreeing to take care of many of those experiencing homelessness from the entire Denver metro area.

The program component of the Aurora Regional Navigation Campus is being brought forward by Mayor Pro Tem Dustin Zvonek. His proposal will convert the facility into three distinct tiers culminating in a “work first” approach. In the third tier, the 255 soon-to-be former hotel rooms will only be available to individuals who are participating in a work training program, who have completed their work training and are actively looking for employment, or who are working but still in need of some services.

This contrasts with Denver’s “Housing First” strategy that simply gives hotel rooms or apartments to individuals experiencing homelessness with absolutely no requirements other than the belief that once they have stable housing, they will be inclined to voluntarily change their behavior and take advantage of the services offered to them.

We believe that the “work first” approach is both fair to the taxpayers, who get up every morning to go to work and who share in the adult responsibilities of life, and ultimately compassionate to those experiencing homelessness.

Unsheltered homelessness is less a crisis of housing affordability and more a crisis of addiction and mental illness. The city of Aurora has outreach teams that connect people who live on the streets week after week with offers of safe places to stay and the services necessary to help them get back on their feet, but they rarely take us up on them. Even when their encampments are being abated, many will still refuse help. If given the choice, they will choose to remain on the streets.

To help them, we must remove that choice. Our current camping ban merely states that once an encampment receives a 72-hour notice it will be abated and that so long as the individuals experiencing unsheltered homelessness agree to move, there will be no penalties for having violated our camping ban.

A new camping ban ordinance is being proposed by Council Member Steve Sundberg that will dramatically change the enforcement of our existing ban. Its focus will be the I-225 corridor in Aurora, the center of gravity for much of our homeless population, but it is written to expand, as necessary, to other parts of our city. Instead of a 72-hour notice, there will be no notice, and violators will be ticketed and given a court date for a trespassing offense. Failure to appear will cause a warrant to be issued for their arrest.

A companion proposal, by Council Member Curtis Gardner, will create a specialized “problem solving court” for individuals experiencing homelessness who have committed low-level offenses such as trespassing. The goal is not to punish them but to get them the treatment they need to stay off the streets. The new court will be called the H.E.A.R.T. (Housing, Employment, Assistance, Recovery, Teamwork) Court where homeless offenders will be given the opportunity to commit to a yearlong probation with agreed-upon requirements such as participating in addiction recovery, mental health care and job training to help them get on a path to being sober, employed and staying housed. If they meet all the requirements of their probation, their charges will be dropped.

Right now, Denver’s “Housing First” approach is the only one recognized by the federal government, while Aurora’s “work first” one is not. Having two cities, side by side, could be the test case that our nation needs to determine the legitimacy of both approaches.

Mike Coffman is the mayor of Aurora.

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