AURORA | Aurora city officials are looking to spend $4.5 million over the next two years to address homelessness in Colorado’s third-largest city.
At a special study session Feb. 29 Aurora City Council members gave initial approval to allocating $1.5 million for homeless services from the city’s 2017 and 2018 budgets. That’s in addition to the $1.5 million approved as part of this year’s budget.
“This is unprecedented in my experience, and as the three-year Homelessness Committee Chair of the Metro Mayors Caucus, it is personally gratifying to see my city step up and tackle a tough issue head on,” Aurora Mayor Steve Hogan wrote in an email to candidates for an advisory group that will make recommendations for addressing homelessness in Aurora.
Hogan sent the email Tuesday to staff at Aurora Mental Health Center, Aurora Housing Authority, Mile High Behavioral Healthcare, Metro Community Provider Network and Aurora Warms the Night. All of the organizations provide services to homeless and low-income residents in the city. Hogan noted that council members are interested in having the organizations help identify how to best use the money.
In this Monday, March 7, 2016, photograph, Salvatore Garofalo sits in a lawn chair in a makeshift homeless camp across from the Denver Rescue Mission in downtown Denver. City officials are planning to evict people on Tuesday from the homeless camps that have popped up around homeless shelters and in public places around the Mile High City. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
An unidentified woman packs up her belongings in a makeshift homeless camp across from the Denver Rescue Mission Monday, March 7, 2016, in downtown Denver. City officials are planning to start evicting people on Tuesday, March 8, from the homeless camps that have popped up around homeless shelters and in public places around the Mile High City. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
In this Monday, March 7, 2016, photo, Salvatore Garofalo sits in a lawn chair as he smokes a cigarette in a makeshift homeless camp across from the Denver Rescue in downtown Denver. City officials are planning to evict people from the homeless camps that have popped up around homeless shelters and in public places around the Mile High City. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
According to the email, council members Angela Lawson, Sally Mounier, Renie Peterson, Bob LeGare and Barb Cleland will be working with the groups on the recommendations that will be reported to all of Aurora City Council at an April 30 workshop.
“I’m interested in seeing something in the area of street outreach,” said LeGare. He said he receives several calls from Aurora businesses and residents about homeless people in their neighborhoods and on their properties.
LeGare, who serves on the board at Mile High Behavioral Health, said he would also like to see a day center in Aurora for the homeless where they could wash their clothes, take a shower and receive mental health services.
Peterson also said she envisions a day center located in the former Aurora police training building on the Anschutz Medical Campus. This year, Aurora police moved into a new a new $29-million police and fire training center, leaving the World War II-era buildings vacant.
That site would be next to Mile High Behavioral Health’s Comitis Crisis Center shelter. That shelter is Aurora’s only overnight emergency homeless shelter and has also expanded in recent years.
“It’s going to make our city safer, and the burden on police, fire and first responders is going to be reduced,” LeGare said of increasing and improving the city’s homeless services. He said providing more services for the homeless in Aurora would also benefit the 184-bed Veterans Affairs medical center set to open next to the Anschutz Medical Campus in 2018.
“When this VA hospital opens, we at Comitis believe there is going to be a massive influx of homeless veterans. We need something that addresses that,” LeGare said.
Veterans are overrepresented among the homeless population, according to the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. Nationally, around 16 percent of homeless populations are veterans, compared to 10 percent in the U.S. general population.
Cleland said she is looking forward to working with the advisory organizations to ensure the money being allocated is well-spent.
“Council’s role is going to be more to listen to what they have to say. They know better than we do,” she said.
Aurora’s plans follow an initiative in Denver this week that started clearing out homeless camps that have developed around shelters. The city says the camps scattered on sidewalks at homeless shelters near Coors Field pose a health hazard. Some homeless people and advocates say many of the people camped out there don’t have anywhere else to live in a time of skyrocketing rents and that they shouldn’t be forced to live in crowded shelters.
Craig Maraschky, executive director of the Aurora Housing Authority, said he would like to see some of that $4.5 million go to more affordable housing in Aurora, which is also suffering from high rents.
“There is a huge demand for affordable housing in the metro area and especially Aurora itself,” he said. “There is always the (not-in-my-backyard)issue, but there has been a lot of good development in Aurora that is indistinguishable from market-rate housing.”
— The Associated Press contributed to this story.