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Shelters vs. encampments: “entirely different”

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Mike Coffman, the mayor of Aurora, Colorado’s third-largest city and a suburb of Denver, has written an essay that helped clear up some confusion in my mind.

I’d long wondered at the incongruity between two competing narratives concerning homeless people. Homeless advocates say that most of the people on the streets are fine, upstanding citizens who just happened to get caught up in economic disaster. “We’re all just a paycheck away from homelessness” is their mantra.

On the other side is the impression that many campers don’t seem to be “fine, upstanding citizens.” This impression is usually found among people like me, who actually live in neighborhoods cluttered with encampments, as opposed, say, to wealthy white liberal suburbanites who take up the homeless cause even though the nearest tent may be many miles away.

What Mayor Coffman did was to spend a week among the homeless, dividing his time between an encampment and a shelter. What he discovered, to his surprise, was that while members of both communities shared the experience of homelessness, the two groups were “entirely different.” Those in shelters were by and large a sympathetic, law-abiding group, who were “using the shelter as a temporary means to save enough money to get back on their feet.” Those in encampments, on the other hand, frightened the mayor. “I never felt safe, no one ever wore a mask or even concerned themselves with social distancing, and I had a number of items stolen.”

Mayor Coffman also realized something about the fundamental dishonesty of homeless advocates. “The advocates for the encampments,” he wrote, “want us to believe that the reasons why the encampment inhabitants never access shelters are because they are afraid of the congregate living arrangements during a pandemic, are concerned about having their few possessions stolen, or fear for their safety.” Indeed, we hear this theory all the time in Oakland. But, says Mayor Coffman, “Nothing could be further from the truth. The real reason why the encampment inhabitants refuse to access the shelters is simple—the shelters have rules. One rule, in particular…is that drugs and drug use are prohibited.”

When I read that, I understood my thoughts as I walk around Oakland and see the filth and degradation of so many encampments. These people don’t seem fine and upstanding, I think. Why would anyone say they are? So often their tents are surrounded by junk, rotting garbage, litter and trash. Cans, bottles, food containers and discarded clothes are strewn about and lay there until someone—not the camper, but a city worker—removes them. Why can’t a tent inhabitant at least keep the area around her dwelling neat? Is cleanliness just a middle-class concept for sheltered people?

Mayor Coffman has cleared up this conundrum for me. Yes, there are fine, upstanding homeless people, but they’re living in shelters. For the ones in the camps, as he points out, “the common denominator [is] drug use…the dominant drug [being] crystal methamphetamine.”

In the encampments, then, we have a community of dysfunctional, often sociopathic drug addicts who have chosen to “drop out of society” (Mayor Coffman’s words). Were they to do so out in some remote wilderness, like the hippies of old who moved to rural enclaves (as I did), it would be one thing. But for them to set up their camps in our neighborhoods, undermining everyone’s health and safety, and compromising our peaceful enjoyment of our environment, is an outrage. This is why we demand that the city of Oakland must immediately implement their Encampment Management Policy.

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