Centennial could see effects from an Aurora camping ban

Bans push homeless from place to place amid housing crisis, advocates say

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As a pattern of increasing homelessness in the Denver metro area appears to continue, Centennial’s ban on homeless camping hasn’t made the city immune from frequent cases of camping.

And with Aurora ready to roll out a camping ban policy of its own, more people experiencing homelessness could be pushed into nearby cities.

Meanwhile, as the metro area’s housing crisis continues, more people are finding Denver to be more unaffordable — a trend that may push more people into Aurora, said Cathy Alderman, spokesperson for the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless.

When advocates with the coalition worked with people experiencing homelessness in the past, they used to be able to find affordable housing in Aurora, but that’s getting harder and harder, Alderman said.

She pointed to “the unproductiveness of having competing camping bans between cities,” arguing that camping bans will push people back and forth across city and county lines.

“It’s very unproductive because instead, the cities could be working together to invest in housing resources for people,” Alderman said.

Although Centennial sits far away from most major resources for unhoused people in the metro area, the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office has made about 245 contacts with people based on Centennial's camping ban since June 2020, according to the sheriff’s office.

Finn Todalen, one of several people who camped near the Aurora-Centennial border in late March, wanted local governments to focus on more aid for the unhoused.

“We’re tired of being run off and being treated as less than human,” Todalen said.

Different hurdles

Eric Gene, a 43-year-old who had set up camp in the same area, said other homeless individuals he’s met say they have been homeless for a few months to a couple years.

On a typical day, five or six unhoused people stay in Gene’s area, he said. He’s met many people abusing alcohol in the time he’s been homeless, and he said health care issues contribute to people’s homelessness.

He’s been homeless for about two years and said it’s difficult to get a job without an address to receive mail. His last home was in Salida in the mountains, but rising lot rent contributed to him losing that home, he said.

He partly grew up in Aurora. So, too, did Danielle Schneider, a 22-year-old who was camping near Gene.

“My mental health issues make it hard for me to function as an adult” and make it difficult to maintain a job, said Schneider, who said she has borderline personality disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and an eating disorder, among other mental health challenges.

She hoped local governments don’t see unhoused people as “villains.”

“I don’t think people realize how hard it is mentally on somebody” to live with mental health struggles, Schneider said. She added: “You never know what someone goes through.”

Todalen, a man in his mid-20s, set out to “travel around” when he was younger, but he lost stability as a personal relationship broke down, he said.

With “the majority of people I’ve come into contact with, it hasn’t been as voluntary” for them to be homeless, said Todalen, who said he has been unhoused for seven years.

He’s been told drug abuse and abuse and neglect from parents have been causes of people’s homelessness.  

People trying to exit homelessness often struggle with lacking identification cards, Todalen said.

“You can’t do anything without an ID. I know one person out here, her birth certificate and her ID were destroyed in a house fire,” Todalen said, noting that people may need some documents to get an ID.

He added: “There’s a lot of people out here who feel like they need to resort to stealing from each other.”

Todalen has struggled with being told to move from place to place, he said, noting that authorities say “you can’t stay here” whether an area is private property, state property or another kind of public property.

“So what do you want me to do — float?” Todalen said.

Visible problem

The vast majority of contacts law enforcement officers make at encampments in Centennial don’t result in tickets, according to data from Deputy John Bartmann, a spokesperson for the sheriff’s office.

“There have been two tickets and one warning issued,” Bartmann said. “This information comes from our records from when Centennial enacted the camping ban.”

Centennial City Council approved the city’s urban camping ban unanimously in 2019. Centennial’s law bans camping on city-owned roads, sidewalks, trails, parks and city buildings or other city property.

Asked whether deputies always recommend resources to homeless individuals when making contact under Centennial's camping ban, Bartmann said the sheriff’s office doesn't track that in its data.

“They will generally ask the individuals if they need help, and if they say yes,” then deputies will provide information about services, Bartmann said. “We have several brochures we give.”

Recently, numbers have painted a picture of increasing homelessness in the Denver metro area — a trend that predates the pandemic but was likely worsened by it.

Year over year, the metro region saw a 99% increase in the number of people new to experiencing homelessness, according to one count in the most recent annual report by the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative. That's an increase the report calls “a direct result of the pandemic,” though the Denver area's housing affordability crisis has long contributed to financial instability that can lead to homelessness for families and individuals alike.

Asked whether Centennial has seen an increase in homeless encampments since July 2019, Bartmann said: “Yes, we have seen an increase in homelessness.”

In Aurora, encampments and people who appear to be experiencing homelessness are common along the Interstate 225 corridor.

“For 2021, there were 79 camp abatements on public property,” said Michael Brannen, a spokesperson for the City of Aurora. “We do not have a record of abatements preceding that year.”

Each year, typically in January, volunteers and staff from sources such as nonprofits team up in communities across the Denver metro area, and areas around the nation, to conduct the point-in-time count of their region’s homeless population.

But “due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the city has not had an accurate point-in-time count of people who sleep rough in the community since 2020,” Brannen said. “Therefore, we do not have the data to show if homeless encampments are more or less common today than in previous years.”

Centennial officials are unsure of the impact Aurora’s camping ban may have on Centennial, said Eric Eddy, Centennial’s assistant city manager.

Asked whether the Arapahoe County Sheriff's Office anticipates that more homeless encampments will pop up in Centennial as a result of Aurora passing a camping ban, Bartmann said: “At this time, we are not sure that we will see the number go up or down.”

People pushed out

But Alderman, spokesperson for the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, “absolutely” expects an Aurora camping ban to push unhoused people into other suburban cities or even back into Denver.

“And I think that’s the intent of it in many ways,” said Alderman, whose organization provides housing, health care and other supportive services.

Denver in 2012 banned staying in an outdoor place with a tent, sleeping bag or other shelter, a policy that advocates for the homeless have said may be pushing more homeless individuals into the suburbs. In a 2013 survey of 512 homeless people in central Denver by the advocacy group Denver Homeless Out Loud, 20% of respondents said that after the ban they more often sleep in outlying neighborhoods or surrounding cities.

Colorado Springs and Boulder also prohibit camping on public property, according to a Centennial city staff report. Parker approved a camping ban in June 2018.

Working toward solutions

Untangling and addressing the problem of metro Denver’s lack of affordable housing is a difficult task, but one short-term action cities can take to help lessen homelessness is to work with motels to provide temporary housing.

Contracting with motels has proven effective during the response to COVID-19, Alderman said. Government bodies have worked with motels to reduce the density in shelters amid the coronavirus’ spread.

“That gives people the opportunity to move from the streets and from shelter to their own space, and they can stabilize in that space because they have their belongings with them, they have their documents with them,” and it makes it easier for homeless-service providers to help them find housing, Alderman said.

In the long term, Centennial is “well aware that homelessness is a regional problem that will require a regional solution,” Eddy said.

The city has been an “active participant” on an Arapahoe County committee that aims to address homelessness, Eddy added.

“The purpose of the committee is to share information and gain a baseline understanding of homelessness issues, existing resources, city and county activities to date, and potential opportunities for improvement, eventually creating an action plan by the end of 2022 or early 2023,” Eddy said. “The committee will be comprised of a broad range of organizations that are impacted by (or are) working with people experiencing homelessness.”

There are currently no short-term, emergency, overnight shelters in Arapahoe County, according to a county spokesperson. But Aurora may build a new shelter and may expand an existing resource in the near term, according to Brannen.

“The city is exploring building a new shelter. The location has not been decided yet,” Brannen said. “If the city was to open the Aurora Day Resource Center for service 24 hours a day, seven days a week, it would be considered a short-term option to help provide additional shelter beds to the community until the new shelter would be ready for occupancy.”

If Aurora expands the Aurora Day Resource Center's services, the number of shelter spaces that would be added isn’t yet clear, but the city council wants to add at least 75 more spaces at that center, according to Brannen.

Centennial Colorado, Aurora, camping ban, homeless, housing, Ellis Arnold

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