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Aurora's mayor went undercover as a homeless person, upsetting some local leaders

Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman said he hoped to gain insight about the issue. Local leaders are calling his actions a "publicity stunt."

AURORA, Colo. — Local leaders, including one who was homeless for years, are calling Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman's decision to spend a week undercover as a person experiencing homelessness last month a "publicity stunt." 

"I'm actually quite livid about it. He should issue a formal public apology," said John Stone, Englewood councilmember at-large. "What I want to come from this is for us to come together and do something productive from this, it has generated a lot of attention, clearly, that was the intent."

Stone said he was homeless between the ages of 16 and 21 and said the only way he escaped the situation was because someone gave him an opportunity where he was finally able to earn enough to afford housing.

In December, Coffman spent a week living on the streets of Denver and Aurora where he posed as a person experiencing homeless without any money or food.

He said he hoped the experience would help him better understand the issue of homelessness ahead of a planned meeting with other local leaders, including the mayors of Denver and Lakewood.

"I didn't feel very comfortable that I was familiar with the issue," said Coffman during an interview with 9NEWS on Wednesday. "And so somehow it donned on me, 'What if you were homeless for a week, would you have a better understanding of the issue?' And I think I do."

RELATED: Metro area mayors working on plan to address homelessness

Local leaders said Coffman "mimicked homelessness" and argued that while he may have had good intentions, he missed the mark with his actions.

"He has inadvertently increased the stigma," said Eva Henry, an Adams County commissioner who said she was once a struggling young mother living paycheck to paycheck. "You can’t just dip your toe in and out of poverty."

Opponents also said a regional approach to the issue of homelessness needs to include more than just the mayors of three cities to be effective. They're asking that homeless advocates and city council members are included in efforts.

They also argued that Coffman "reduced people’s experiences with homelessness and drugs to a lifestyle choice." Coffman said some people didn't want to go to shelters and preferred to stay in encampments, but stopped short of calling their situation a choice.

"[There were] people that did not want — were in encampments — didn't want to be in the shelters period," he said. "The notion of being subject to rules, being told what to do, not having access to drugs or alcohol at will, that is a decision that they've made there. But it would be hard to argue that homelessness is a choice."

Coffman said his time on the streets was physically demanding, but during that time, he wanted to talk to as many as he could to see how they ended up on the streets and learn about what plans they had for the future.

Advocates argued that Coffman only scratched the surface and didn't ask the right questions to really get at the deep challenges faced by those experiencing homelessness.

"To go out and say that these folks, because he spent a week with them on the street, knowing that he was going to be in his warm bed on day eight and ask, 'Why are they here and not in a shelter?' and they say, 'Because I wanted to do drugs,' does not do anything to get at the core of the problem," said Shelley McKittrick, who left her role as the City of Aurora's first homelessness program director in September. 

"He didn't ask these folks, 'Tell me about your lives what happened that this is where you landed?'," she added. "If he did ask that, he would have stories of childhood trauma. He would have heard stories of war trauma. He would have heard stories of economic trauma. He would have heard all kinds of stories that said, 'This is not how I expected my life to turn out.'"

Coffman said he was surprised by the number of people he encountered who appeared to have mental health issues.

"We’ve got to figure out how to address the mental health component," he said. "We have to make treatment available, we have to make job training available, we have to make these program[s] available, but if able-bodied people that are not willing — even if they have a substance abuse problem — that are not willing to take advantage of these programs, at the end of the day there's just nothing we can do for them."

Coffman said economic issues were a contributing factor to homelessness, but said most of the people he encountered were on the streets due to mental health issues or drug and alcohol abuse.

RELATED: 'It's been really an inspiring month': Denver's sanctioned campsites enter month 2 for people experiencing homelessness

"I was surprised at the drug use that I saw at the encampments, not marijuana, but crystal meth, crack, cocaine, heroin, very surprised at that," he said.

Coffman said he spent time at three Denver encampments and said they do pose public health and safety threats.

"We can clearly do more to help people and move them on to stable housing," Coffman said. "What isn’t working is spending more money on it without changing behaviors. People are never going to [move] forward with their lives. You don’t want to be in a situation with public policy where you’re enabling really bad, destructive behavior."

Homeless advocates argued that one week sleeping outside and in shelters "does not give him [Coffman] insight into the very real trauma that people experience prior to and during their time living on the streets."

"We do not need tours of homelessness. We need people to listen to those who have been speaking for years and decades on this issue," said Vinnie Cervantes, director of Denver Alliance for Street Health Response. 

Speakers, supporters and attendees for Thursday's news conference included:

  • Councilmember Crystal Murillo, Aurora Ward I 
  • Councilmember Nicole Johnston, Aurora Ward II
  • Councilmember Juan Marcano, Aurora Ward IV
  • Councilmember Alison Coombs, Aurora Ward V
  • Councilmember Allison Hiltz, Aurora At-Large
  • Councilmember John Stone, Englewood At-Large
  • Councilmember Sharon Tessier, City and County of Broomfield, Ward 2
  • Mayor Pro-Tempore Guyleen Castriotta, City and County of Broomfield 
  • Councilmember Candi CdeBaca, City and County of Denver, District 9
  • Commissioner Emma Pinter, Adams County District 3
  • Commissioner Nancy Jackson, Arapahoe County District 4
  • Representative-Elect Iman Jodeh, HD 41
  • Demetria Skipper, Living Water Ministry
  • Shelley McKittrick, Program Development and Operations Consultant with the Colorado Village Collaborative (CVC)
  • Vinnie Cervantes, Director, DASHR

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