Douglas County commissioners pivot on homelessness approach

Teal says he no longer wants shelters

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After a June 22 town hall where residents expressed frustration with homeless shelters planned in the community, Douglas County commissioners indicated they will change their approach.

Commissioner George Teal, who previously voted to approve a plan to buy temporary, moveable structures, said he was no longer interested in the purchase but was willing to pursue other options.

“I do think that there is a solution there that we should push for,” Teal said. “We shouldn't have to live with unhoused people in our community when we all spend a lot of money having houses ourselves.”

Teal’s comments came after a 90-minute meeting where many residents said they thought a shelter would exacerbate homelessness in the county. While two of the three commissioners had approved the “pallet” structures — modeled after a program in Aurora — a location for them has not yet been approved.

A county spokesperson said the final vote to approve the purchase of the pallets was removed from next week's agenda.

There were tense moments throughout the town hall as audience members frequently shouted out, interrupting speakers and arguing with the panel members.

“We are going to destroy the essence of Douglas County. Douglas County is not Denver,” said resident Mike Campbell. 

Commissioner Abe Laydon — who voted in favor of the pallets — has said he did so because a shelter is needed for law enforcement to enforce camping restrictions.

“My goal as one commissioner is to make sure there is not one single homeless individual or panhandler on any intersection or any median in this entire county,” Laydon said. 

Laydon added that he doesn’t want a “tent city” in Douglas County. 

Attendees challenged the idea that a shelter was needed, asking for specifics on what law required the move and encouraging the commissioners to try to change any law that does so. Laydon and others have referenced People vs. Wiemold, a district court case out of Fort Collins where a judge ruled a man couldn’t be cited for violating a camping ban because there was no shelter available to him.

“It’s a legal trend, essentially you can’t criminalize homelessness,” said Amy Edwards, senior assistant county attorney. “It’s not a choice unless there is a bed available and they choose not to go to the bed when they’re asked to move along.” 

Some residents made comments that those experiencing homelessness are doing so by choice. In response, Kevin Duffy, chief deputy of the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office said his office has seen a rise in women experiencing homelessness as they flee domestic violence.

“That’s not a choice, they’re not drug addicts, they’re not thieves, they’re escaping abuse” he said. “And the only place they can stay where they’re safe is in a car.”

Earlier this year, the county formed its homeless initiative to explore ways to approach the growing local issue. 

Since then, commissioners have funded a specific officer who can help residents leaving the jail get back to public transportation systems; a Homeless Engagement Assistance and Resource Team, or HEART, which pairs law enforcement officers with case managers to confront and offer services to unhoused people; and an Aurora GOALS program that will allow a few homeless families to find temporary shelter. 

The commissioners have also said they are planning a signage and public information campaign telling residents about the HEART team and encouraging them not to give money to panhandlers or people who appear homeless. 

Commissioner Lora Thomas, who voted against the plan to buy the pallets, reiterated her stance during the meeting, saying she wants to see how the existing programs impact the issue.

“Let’s see what we have in place, how it’s working and then work together from there,” she said. 

The full video of the town hall is available on the county's YouTube page.

Homeless, Douglas County, shelters

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