FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Vinnie Cervantes, DASHR 720.413.0124 | vinnie @dashrco.org
Benjamin Dunning, Denver Homeless Out Loud email@example.com
Anaya Robinson, Atlantis Community, Inc. firstname.lastname@example.org
Lisa Raville, Harm Reduction Action Center email@example.com
Carlos Valdez, Colorado Jobs With Justice firstname.lastname@example.org
Jason Vitello, Colorado Public Health Association email@example.com
MAYOR COFFMAN’S STUNT PROVIDES INACCURATE NARRATIVE OF HOMELESSNESS DASHR and its partners reject Coffman’s view and insist on real commumity engagement
Denver, CO – On January 5th, a story was published through CBS Denver that covered Mayor Mike Coffman of Aurora masquerading as an unhoused veteran for seven days. From that experience, Coffman reflected that the entire drive of homelessness in Denver and Aurora was a culture of drugs and he later doubled down on that assertion through national media. The narrative he presented about homelessness was not only grossly inaccurate, but harmful to real efforts to end homelessness and support those who are unhoused. Last Thursday, we joined Aurora Councilmembers Crystal Murillo, Juan Marcano, Alison Coombs, Allison Hiltz, and Nicole Johnston as well as other advocates and metro area leaders to offer different perspectives and solutions and to reject the very narrow image of homelessness presented by the Mayor.
DASHR serves and works with our unhoused community and works to implement transformative, treatment-focused approaches to community crisis, which can include homelessness, substance use, and mental health issues. As an organization, we felt compelled to offer a more comprehensive perspective on homelessness and Coffman’s stunt combined with those of our partners and allies as well.
Katie Brown is a member of DASHR and a domestic violence counselor. She was frustrated with the lack of nuance in understanding homeless. “I wish that it were better understood that violence and trauma are primary pathways to loss of housing; survivors seeking safety are often competing in housing programs and shelters, and services aren’t remotely equipped to respond to the demand for refuge from domestic violence. As a result, many survivors, particularly undocumented folks, face housing insecurity as well as houselessness along the path to protect themselves and their children from abuse.”
Roshini Kumar, a Lakewood community member, member of DASHR, and social worker added, “As the issues of unhoused folks are disproportionately exacerbated by the effects of the pandemic, it is even more critical that the public understand the complex root causes of houselessness and housing insecurity. It cannot be simplified to the singular narrative of people ”not trying hard enough or being involved in the drug culture”. This narrative is not only inaccurate, as evidenced from years of research and people’s lived experiences, but it can be dangerous. It delegitimizes valid barriers created by systems and institutions in our society and promotes further violence and dehumanization against the unhoused community. Leaders need to take accountability to create a metro wide strategy based on research, nuance and compassion to recreate systems and solutions that truly address homelessness.”
Vinnie Cervantes, Director of DASHR, worries that Coffman is building a foundation to implement policies similar to Denver’s that have been devastating to efforts to end homelessness. “The irony of Coffman pulling his stunt was that he did so after Denver’s Mayor Hancock reached out for a Metro strategy to approach homelessness. It has been the urban camping ban and violent, costly sweeps in Denver that have pushed unhoused folks further out of Denver where homelessness will be a much bigger problem for cities like Aurora. Coffman has said he won’t pursue a ban yet, but intends to dismantle encampments; a strategy that has been disastrous for Denver in moving people around who have nowhere else to go.”
We call on metro area leaders to reject Coffman’s agenda-driven narrative about homelessness that will do more harm than good. We insist that the voices and experiences of those who are unhoused and those who work directly with them be prioritized in understanding homelessness; not those who tour it as a political stunt. We know that homelessness is nuanced; it’s shaped by disability, mental health, substance use, economic systems, relationship violence and includes disproportionate impacts on BIPOC and LGBTQ communities. The people most impacted by these issues need to be prioritized when developing narratives of homelessness and policies that result. And we call on media agencies to be more responsible and inclusive with their coverage of deeply complex, deeply systemic issues such as homelessness.
In addition to DASHR’s members, we wanted to include perspectives from some of our partners. We insist that these and other voices and lived experiences be included in coverage and understandings of homelessness.
Benjamin Dunning, an organizer with Denver Homeless Out Loud: “There has been a large outcry about the way that the “Mayor” of Aurora misrepresented the homeless in his community after sleeping outside for a week. It was a PR stunt. He did not get himself educated on what he was getting into. Which is evidence of a lack of good decision making qualities and if I were a citizen of Aurora I would be gravely concerned. There are some fine service providers and advocates in Aurora that he could have learned from. There is no reason why as an elected leader he could not have taken the time to educate himself about what he was getting into.”
Mary Ann Thompson has experienced houselessness and works with other unhoused folks: “Coffman violated the Urban Camping Ban in Denver and never encountered the daily trauma our UNHOUSED do on a daily basis.”
Anaya Robinson, Associate Director of Atlantis Community, Inc.: “Instead of believing the community, Mayor Coffman chose to act as though 7 days of performance equated to lived experience. We call on the Mayor to hold himself accountable to his constituents and listen to people experiencing homelessness, including the disability community who make up more than 40% of people experiencing homelessness, so that he can gain legitimate insight into not only the reasons people are unhoused, but also the resources and programs that are needed to ensure rapid housing and sustainability can be accessed. It is clear that the services and programs we have are not sufficient to meet the needs of the community, and it is clear that this self aggrandized experiment Mayor Coffman engaged in was not the way to get the information needed to inform necessary and overdue change.”
Lisa Raville, Director of Harm Reduction Action Center: “Harm Reduction Action Center welcomes the opportunity to educate Mayor Coffman about the reality of substance use and existing barriers to public health initiatives & treatment access in Colorado. The continued stigmatization of people who use drugs and our unhoused neighbors has only exacerbated Colorado’s deadliest year yet of the overdose crisis.”
Carlos Valdez, Lead Organizer for Colorado Jobs with Justice as well as a former Aurora educator and long-time Aurora resident : “What Mayor Mike Coffman’s “experiment” proves is how out of touch elected officials are with our houseless community. It is clear that he is the one that came with an agenda, dismissing orgs that have worked with these communities for substantially longer than a week.We have heard from working people in Aurora that low wages, lack of affordable housing, are real issues that have caused folks to become homeless. Rather than listening to working people, Coffman takes up space in encampments and shelters to capture generalizations about houseless people that communicate a lack of empathy and boot-strap mentality.” Colorado JWJ is a coalition of union, community, faith and students working together to build power and advance racial and social justice in the workplace and in our communities.
Jason Vitello, President-elect of the Colorado Public Health Association added a statement from their organization: “The Colorado Public Health Association (CPHA) stands in solidarity with the American Public Health Association (APHA), in asserting affordable, safe and secure access to housing and the eradication of the systemic pathways to homelessness are public health issues. Attempts to reduce homelessness and other symptoms of poverty to individual moral failures are antiquated, fallacious, and dangerous. Calling for “personal responsibility” while neglecting to discuss the social and shared responsibility an affluent nation should have for its most vulnerable members is inhumane and ineffective.
Complex social problems require sophisticated, cross-sector solutions, and evidenced based strategies such as those identified in the APHA policy statement below. With an increase in economic insecurity caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, we can anticipate a consequential increase in homelessness and poverty. Instead of blaming those who are impacted, we should center their experiences, consult with experts, bolster trauma-informed supportive services, and advocate for secure housing and economic opportunities.
CPHA continues to advocate for affordable housing for Coloradans through our 2021 Policy Platform which includes affordable housing, COVID Relief dollars supporting housing, and structural racism in housing.
DASHR is an organization focused on creating and supporting community-based responses to conflict and crisis. We work to transform the narrative of public safety.