AURORA, Colo. (CBS4) - Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman has a new understanding of what he says is driving the growing number of homeless in Aurora and Denver after he went undercover and became one of them. For one week, Coffman was known only as "Homeless Mike" to those he met as he walked the streets, slept on sidewalks and documented his journey in text messages to CBS4 Political Specialist Shaun Boyd.
He took no money, no food, and lost what little he did have when his backpack was stolen.
"It wasn't fun. It was really hard ... but incredibly impactful," he told Boyd after the experience, adding, "I never want to do it again."
He says what he saw in encampments and shelters shocked him, and the changes he's now proposing may come as a shock to those who think the homeless problem is all about housing. As a mayor, Coffman wanted to know what was behind the growing number of homeless -- not from those studying it -- but those living it. As one of them, he got answers that, he says, aren't what he expected.
"I thought really that the numbers would be driven by the economy, by COVID. They were not."
In the shelters, he says, most of the people he met had lived there for years. Many, he says, were from out of state.
"I would talk to them and they would have a vision of maybe what they wanted to do but they would have absolutely no plan to get there. So I'd say, 'Well okay, what's the next step?' and there was no next step."
What he saw in the encampments was far more troubling. He says young people are openly using meth, heroin and cocaine, and their addictions, he says, are being facilitated by those who think they're helping.
"It's kind of this dropout mentality drug culture that is sustained by a lot of well-meaning individuals who give money to them, who bring food to them, other necessities to them."
Boyd asked him what he would say to those well-meaning people. He replied, "I would say you're hurting these people. You're really prolonging what is really a negative lifestyle that is going to eventually kill these people."
"But, they won't go to the shelters," Boyd said. "That's the thing," he responded. "We can't keep subsidizing a lifestyle that is so harmful to them and I think represents a public safety and health problem to the community at large ... there are no redeeming qualities about the encampments, none whatsoever. I think they're a public safety menace and a public health hazard and they have to go. The sooner we can dismantle them, the better."
Coffman says the shelters he visited are also enabling a life of dependency. While he says some people there have mental health issues that make it impossible for them to hold a steady job, most, he says, can work.
"You ought to do something. You ought to sweep the floor or mop the floor or you ought to help in the kitchen, but there was no responsibility whatsoever."
Those who stay in publicly funded shelters, he says, should be required to get drug treatment or job training.
"You have to commit to do something affirmative in exchange for taxpayer benefits."
"And if they don't?" Boyd asked. "Won't we have more people on the streets?"
"I think we're not helping them," he replied. "I think at some point in time you have to say, 'Enough is enough.' I know that's a hard decision, but if you're just subsidizing a lifestyle that's destructive to them and their families, who are you helping? We have to have a different vision in order to really be compassionate to those who are homeless and be fair to the taxpayers of America."
What we're doing now, he says, is clearly not working. He's seen that firsthand. "It was really hard," Coffman told Boyd. "But was it worth it?" she asked.
"It was absolutely worth it," he said.
While Coffman was considering a camping ban in Aurora before his week on the streets, he says he won't seek one now. Aurora has a much smaller camping problem than Denver, he noted, even though Denver has a camping ban. What he would like to see, he says, is maybe a public education campaign urging people not to bring food and other provisions that enable people who want to put up tents in urban areas, sleep on sidewalks and use drugs.
A week before Coffman hit the streets, he got a call from Denver Mayor Michael Hancock who wants to work on a metro-wide approach to homelessness. Coffman will suggest that it include some personal responsibility from the homeless.
As a state lawmaker in the late 1990s, Coffman sponsored the bill that created the Colorado Works Program which provides temporary assistance to needy families who can show they are trying to improve their situation, much like he wants the homeless to do.
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