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September 28, 2023 3:35 pm MST

An Overnight on the Streets To Fact Check Coffman's Stories About Posing As an Unhoused Person

  • by: Jason Salzman

(Promoted by Colorado Pols)

There wasn’t much room at the campsite on Logan and 8th Avenue on Friday when I was looking for a place to pitch my tent for an overnight fact-check of Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman’s claims about what he saw when he posed as a “homeless veteran.”

I was thinking I might have to find another encampment because I didn’t want to cram my tent too close to the ones that already filled the public property along the streets. I didn’t want to invade the space of the 70 folks already there.

I stood around and talked to people for about an hour and two guys rode up on bikes, one pulling a red wagon. They stopped in front of me, and one of them quickly dismantled a two-person tent and tossed it into the wagon. Could I camp there, I asked? Yes. Why was he leaving? He didn’t respond and rode away.

I immediately started setting up my tent. The night was warm, with a shining half moon, so I decided not to set up my rain fly. Earlier in the week, storms were forecast, and I actually thought about delaying my overnight on the streets, but I caught myself. If only unhoused people can’t stay at home when it rains. What kind of wimp-ass journalist am I? I committed to doing it.

Coffman with CBS4 reporter before hitting the streets.

Ever since Coffman spent a week on the streets about two years ago, I’d vaguely thought about fact-checking his experience.

Then this year, he started talking about it on the campaign trail as he seeks a second term as mayor, repeating the stories I’d already heard over and over again, and I thought people would benefit from a progressive journalist’s observations, to compare to Coffman’s.

So I loaded my backpack with a tent, pad, and sleeping bag, put $40 and my driver’s license in my pocket, and promised my wife I’d text her from my tent later on. When Coffman hit the streets, he promised to text only one person: Channel 4 reporter Shaun Boyd, who chronicled “Homeless Mike’s” journey in a CBS4 exclusive.

Below are some of the claims Coffman made about his time on the streets, followed by my perspective from what I witnessed.

Coffman: “I never met anybody in the encampments that, you know, mentioned a desire to get a job or move away from there. I think it’s very sad.” (KHOW Dan Caplis Show 5/19/21)

About two hours after I arrived at my camp, a woman rolled up in a wheelchair and said she’d been on the streets for years and wanted to find housing.

Unhoused person along 8th Ave.

She (and others) came to this camp because she’d heard the city of Denver was offering housing to the campers before they forced them to leave the following week. I told her I thought she was too late because the city had a cut-off date, and city officials had already come around and signed up the folks in the camp for housing. She didn’t care; she wanted to camp there anyway and see if she could get a place to live when the city dismantled the camp. She wanted her own house or apartment, not a tent, not a shelter, where your belongings will be stolen, she warned.

She launched into a manic recounting of her life in Denver, including Kennedy High School (class of ’89) an ankle injury from being hit by a car on the street, her sex life (“not that kind of girl”), years at day shelters (run down), experience with drugs (doesn’t do them anymore), and much more.

So how could Coffman possibly have lived a week on the streets and “never met anyone in the encampments” who wanted to “move away.”

As you will see below, Coffman’s Homeless-Mike stories are replete with these kinds of gross simplifications, which make good soundbites — but don’t reflect the complex reality and people you find on the streets.

Coffman: “People brought food out. … I’m staying in an encampment and, you know, five o’clock, you know, car rolls up. ‘Anybody hungry? I’ve got some homemade chicken noodle soup.’ So, I said, ‘Sure.’ And, you know, nice big container of homemade — the best chicken noodle soup I ever had. Then, you know, probably 30 minutes later, another car pulls up. ‘Anybody hungry?’ I said, ‘This is not good for weight control.’ I said, ‘Sure,’ and gave me a big container of just the best homemade beef stew, you know, on a roll with it and a bottle of water and asked me if I wanted a blanket.” (KNUS, Jimmy Sengenberger, 05-22-21)

Coffman says unhoused people in his encampment “never” bought food and spent all their “panhandling” money on drugs.

I take Coffman at his word that people around Denver brought food to the camps, but I can say no one brought soup or anything to my encampment. At one point, a man wearing gloves was carrying two grocery bags across 8th Avenue, and the woman I was talking to said it would be great if he was bringing food to the camp. His gloves made her think he was. But he walked away.

What I saw on the street was not sympathy but anger toward unhoused people — hate that’s fomented by Coffman’s simplistic and mocking (“not good for weight control”) rhetoric.

People screamed profanities at my camp. “Fuck you,” one man yelled as he sped by. “Fuck all of you” spewed from another vehicle. One honked for a full minute as they waited at the light. It went on into night, I can assure you, because I failed to bring earplugs. At 1:09 a.m., I woke up to a continuous honk. At about 5 a.m., “You’re gross, nasty, dirty fucks.”

I was scared of the unhoused people around me as I set up my tent in the evening, but when I dismantled it the following day, I was thinking to myself that I should have been more worried about the insane drivers speeding by the camp.

Coffman: “I know this is very controversial, but that if you look at the hippie movement of the late 60s and early 70s, when it was about dropping out of society, it was communal, it was banding together with others, it was a drug culture, marijuana, hallucinogenic drugs. And there is a parallel here, It is about dropping out of society for a lot of these people. It is about banding together as sort of a communal way and creating very strong relationships.” (KHOW, Ross Kaminsky Show, 5/21/21

Coffman reaches the height of superficiality and oversimplification to claim that homelessness is akin to the hippie movement. If you walk around homeless camps, you find elements of alternative and communal life, for sure, which is natural for people living together on the fringes of society and on the streets. When I first arrived at the encampment, someone offered me a cherry popsicle, which I readily ate. Another woman offered to help me set up my tent. Everyone in my encampment seemed to know the name of a dog, Rain, that wandered around. Elsewhere, I occasionally heard music and saw art, and plants, among the grocery carts, sagging office chairs, boxes, and baby carriages.

Mostly, people wanted to stay out of my way, and some didn’t welcome me at all. “Don’t worry; I’m not hurting anyone,” I told one guy who was checking me out at the camp.” “You look like a cop,” he said, even though I’d dispensed of the white t-shirt I’d planned to wear because my wife said it was too clean — first time she’d said I was too clean in 27 years.

Yes, some people I met at the encampment didn’t want to leave, drug use was widespread, and human communities had formed. But I didn’t see the hippie movement, as I know and love it.

Coffman: “I got most of my things stolen.” (KNUS, Deborah Flora Show, 8-3-23)

Sidewalk along Logan Street.

Unless he was mugged, and he hasn’t talked about this, Coffman is stupid if he had most of his things stolen. For just a week on the streets, he should have been able to retain the few things he says he brought with him. Or maybe he wanted to say he was robbed to further vilify unhoused people for his own political gain? There’s an obvious undercurrent out there of fear and bias toward unhoused people that Coffman taps into when he says he lost “most” of his stuff. I carry a bias and I’m a bleeding-heart liberal. As I walked through the camps downtown, I found myself looking for my bike that was stolen four years ago in front of the 20th Street Recreation Center.

I’m not denying the crime in the camps. That would be absurd. Before I set up my tent on Logan Street, a guy asked, “Are you camping?” I said yes, and he warned me that he got “shit stolen.” No surprise. So I just left my tent empty unless I was in it. You just wonder why Coffman, who brags about his Iraq War deployments and would seem to know better than to leave his few possessions in the world lying around on the dirt like drug addicts do, was stripped of his stuff.

Coffman: “These encampments are not a product of the economy or COVID. They’re not a product of rental rates or housing. They are part of a drug culture.” (CBS4, CBS Colorado, 1/5/21)

Coffman: In the encampments, it was a drug culture. It was a hardcore drug culture at that time, was mostly crystal methamphetamine. Young people smoking in clear glass pipes, shooting it up. And then now it’s trending more to fentanyl. And it was people, young people that had no desire whatsoever to move on. Yeah, none. (KHOW, Ross Kaminsky Show, 8/31/21)

Coffmnan: “Mental health problems are exaggerated by some of the advocates for the homeless.” (KNUS, Peter Boyles, 1230-21)

You would never deny the presence of drugs in homeless camps. Just stroll around them for five minutes. People wailing. Syringes on the ground. People sweating and incapacitated or teetering literally and metaphorically.

I was standing outside my tent at about 10 p.m. and a middle-aged man, cleanly dressed, moved down the sidewalk on a Lyft scooter. “You want clear,” he asked me. “What’s clear?” I responded. “If you don’t know, you’re better off not knowing,” he told me. I laughed and asked, “How much you got?” “About 60,” he replied and moved along.

But if you spend even one night out in a camp — or if you think about it at all — you’ll see that it’s absurd to blame the drugs, widespread as they are. To do so is a deliberate mental reduction. You see that all people are not on drugs, mental illness is everywhere, along with poverty, and other glaring symptoms of an unjust economic system. The closer you get to homelessness, the more clear it is that it’s a problem that’s not going away anytime soon, especially if you have people like Coffman reducing it to drugs and work requirements.

Coffman: And so, we’re going to have to be tougher. And we’re going to have to criminalize it. (KNUS, Deborah Flora Show, 8/3/23)

Coffman: You know, it’s been said by a bunch of people that the best anti-poverty program is having a job. If people don’t want to work, they’re not going move on with their lives. (KNUS, Peter Boyles, 5/27/21)

Journalist’s tent.

I woke up at about 6 a.m. to the smell of meth and/or fentanyl smoke. It was quiet and I sat and watched people going to two “Honey Bucket” porta-potties, which had been purchased by Denver under Mayor Michael Johnston. I hadn’t seen porta-potties in any of the downtown camps I visited — though I counted 67 porta-potties ready and waiting for partiers the day before at RINO’s Octoberfest, which I crossed as I walked to the homeless encampments a few blocks away.

Read the conclusion of this story at the Colorado Times Recorder.


4 thoughts on “An Overnight on the Streets To Fact Check Coffman’s Stories About Posing As an Unhoused Person

  1. The anecdotes are helpful … but understanding the situation can be broadened by checking the research on the issue.  One source:  2022 HAND Housing Survey.

    See page 8 for the key findings …. beginning with "Between 93% and 99% of houseless people want some form of housing."



  2. Thanks for this, Jason. Just so Denver-area folks know, there are unhoused folks in communities all over this state, and there are “Coffman” simplifications told about these folks wherever the unhoused reside. In a community I’m familiar with, rumors circulate regularly that the “homeless” are being bused in (in some unexplained way), that they’re not from the local area (though anecdotal evidence suggests the majority of them have lived in the area for a year or longer), that they all commit criminal acts (a few do but it’s a minority).

    In this same community, there are active efforts by nonprofits, mental health/substance abuse-serving agencies, and at least one local government to assess the needs of each unhoused individual to connect willing people to services, and to move interested folks into housing (shelter, transitional, or longer-term, as needed). Homelessness of veterans – a targeted population – is close to zero, and the growing number of unhoused families receive special attention. Which reminds me of another common rumor – the homeless are coming here because word gets out that services here are better.

    And in another rural part of our state, the socially-accepted drunken fest leads to significant problems for businesses and residents. Oktoberfest = socially acceptable. Unhoused folks = not acceptable.

  3. Had I known he'd be on the streets for this pathetic stunt, I would've peed on his tent.

    One of the best ways to begin addressing our homelessness is to start mass-producing tiny houses from shipping containers and using abandoned office and warehouse space. Those people just want some stability and if they had their own place where they felt secure, able to lock things up, they'd begin to get the next step going. We'd also have to open up tons of mental health and drug clinics, but it would be easy to do, it's just that nobody really wants to do it, and all the billionaires are terrible people who'll never do it, let alone the government.

  4. Having worked some with homeless individuals in my past life in social services work, I would say that there are solid elements of truth in what Mike Coffman says and in what Jason Saltzman has to say. Neither has talked much, though, about those who prefer to live on the streets. 

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