There are those perennial issues — the homeless problem among them — that are complex enough to resist the rote and reflexive answers normally available in the usual ideological toolboxes. Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman, an old salt at the policy-making business, recognizes this. Accordingly, he did what he deemed to be the best way to achieve the comprehensive understanding necessary to formulate an appropriate public response to one of the most pressing problems facing his city and other urban areas in the state and beyond — the homeless encampments sprawled out here and there — by corporeally immersing himself in it.
It was not a light undertaking; Coffman went out to the streets for a week after Christmas, bringing with him no food, money, or anything with which to protect himself, only a tarp, some surplus military clothing, and a single ID card, “in case I’m injured” he told CBS4’s highly talented political reporter Shaun Boyd, who tracked the enterprise and stayed in sporadic contact with him via text.
Mayor Coffman’s week spent undercover, as it were, in a homeless encampment earlier this month did at least two things; a) provided the mayor the requisite clarity and insight to initiate policy recommendations to prudently and effectively begin to address the issue, and b) generated a deluge of opprobrium directed at him, ironically from the corners which ought to have most vocally applauded his intimate engagement with the problem, those being the groups and individuals who have most vocally advocated that something be done.
Fortunately, Mayor Coffman’s time as one of Colorado’s most effective congressmen ably equipped him to absorb both outcomes.
His account was illustrative. Referring exclusively to the squalid camps that he stayed in and which have been the most visible and problematic exhibit of the problem, Coffman reported, “These encampments are not product of the economy or COVID. They’re not a product of rental rates or housing. They are part of a drug culture.”
His conclusions may not be entirely surprising but are important nonetheless. Coffman spoke of rampant and open drug use, including meth, cocaine, heroin and fentanyl. These were people who chose to reside in these camps, rather than one of the many shelter options available to the homeless, often because those facilities disallowed drug use.
Coffman also spent some time in those shelters, to see what goes on there. While the rules generally state that drugs and alcohol are not allowed, it seems to be a rule observed at least partly in the breach. But the more illuminating observation was the fact that there did not appear to be any plan or program in these facilities to develop, or even encourage, any form of self-sufficiency. Some, he said, bore mental health issues which precluded the ability to hold down a job, but many were not so hobbled.
Coffman’s experience should help inform the direction that public policies take to confront the issue. Concerning the shelters, it seems that resources would be well-directed toward programs that can carve a path to self-sufficiency, starting with encouraging a change in mentality. Providing work assignments, requiring residents to help clean the buildings, assist in the kitchens, and other chores, might be a good start. More comprehensive educational programs to equip those able with the basic skills and mindset required to actively improve their situation will cost money but would be a more beneficial investment than the status quo.
The situation with the camps is more difficult, but imperative. It will begin by diminishing well-intentioned, but devastating enablement. Concern for those less fortunate is a morally healthy impulse, but ways must be found to direct that impulse towards charitable actions that will in fact help rather than hurt. Similarly, replacing the culturally fashionable tolerance for drug use with a thoughtful but aggressive multi-faceted offensive against drugs and addiction would accomplish much.
For his commendable efforts, Coffman received, not the praise one would expect from homeless advocates for having the courage to experience the depths of the problem for himself, but vitriol. The criticism ranged from the usual politically gymnastic speech that suggests that a “deeper cause” is being missed, to bombastically dismissive hyperbole from the activist types, all of it geared toward defending the political fiefdoms that develop around perpetual issues.
No one, least of all Coffman, is suggesting that his week in the streets miraculously armed the mayor with an epiphanistic catalog of solutions to the entire homelessness problem, but it did equip him with the background and insight needed to take meaningful steps to arrive at appropriate solutions. Clarity, of course, in inconvenience for those for whom opaqueness is politically useful.