EDITORIAL: Aurora should back homeless rights bill for the good of the city, and all of the metro area

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Aurora has long struggled with how to handle homeless people. It’s pretty clear the city government will continue to flounder.

There’s no doubt that Aurora has come a very long ways from the days not so long ago when elected officials outright denied there was any real problem.

In the last few years, Aurora has backed a variety of programs to aid those whom we group under the deficient label “homeless.” Just recently Aurora backed a program that will offer select homeless people a path toward jobs, homes and what most of us know as normal life. Aurora spends pot-tax proceeds on programs to aid homeless people.

It’s not nearly enough though. Aurora is teaming with homeless people, and there is no plan nor call for a desperately needed overnight shelter.

Aurora leaders have learned, like many of us, that homelessness is many issues affecting many different kinds of people.  It’s rarely a permanent affliction. The cliche of the bothersome vagrant begging on interstate off-ramps is as big a part of homelessness as is that one student in class that’s always disruptive.

The biggest part of the homeless problem is what most people don’t see. People who move from the home of relative to relative because they can’t manage to get a place of their own. Families living in motels who can’t save enough to get a home. Mentally ill people who live in the shadows. Moms with kids living in parked cars. Veterans who wander during the day and sleep under bushes or behind trash bins close to buildings for food and warmth. There are thousands of these people in the metro area, many of them right here in Aurora, working hard to avoid the attention of police.

While most of these people are simply ignored by the rest of us, there are many, right or wrong, who don’t want to see vagrancy near their businesses, their homes, their schools or the places they shop. In the past, the city has led the way in allowing police to shoo away vagrants, believing that they’re somehow serving the public good by moving the problem somewhere else, usually to Downtown Denver.

Officials there have made it clear they will not be the repository for the metro area’s vagrant population. And so now there are large numbers of vagrants and shadow campers living, homeless, in Aurora.

Without overnight shelters, programs or campgrounds, we will all be increasingly confronted with the reality of life in our growing metro-plex: There will be more and more people living in their cars and on the streets right here.

This week, city lawmakers instructed their paid lobbyists to oppose a state legislative bill by Aurora state Rep. Jovan Melton. House Bill 18-1067, dubbed the Colorado Right to Rest Act, would spell out the existing rights of homeless people, ensuring they aren’t shooed away from public areas or forbidden from taking food.

Aurora officials want the measure killed.

That’s wrong. The rights set out in this bill are universal, not subject to municipal whims. Granted, the bill, as written, raises myriad questions and points out the problems cities like Aurora must face with so many homeless people. The measure makes clear that the government can’t prevent people from living in their cars by taking them or precluding anyone from parking them in public places, as long as they’re following the laws the same as everyone else. Homeless people living in cars are regularly harassed by police or others, usually responding to public complaints.

The problem with people living in their cars, however, is often one of sanitation, a very real and very serious issue. But it’s a problem Aurora and other metro city officials must deal with or without HB 1067.

Aurora shouldn’t fight this bill, it should embrace and amend it to work for the public good. There’s no avoiding the city’s homeless population and the challenges they present. And there’s no shuffling homeless people over the city border.

City lawmakers should back Melton’s bill, and work to refine it so it becomes a tool to protect and improve the lives of all Aurora residents.