HOME BOUND: Making Aurora home for people who don’t have one

Finding ways for Aurora homeless people to vote, to live better lives and find real homes, possibly by using taxes from recreational pot sales

AURORA | R.J. hasn’t cast a ballot for a U.S. president in eight years.

It isn’t that she hasn’t wanted to weigh in on the top political race in the country, but because she’s been living in homeless shelters off and on for the past few years, registering and assorted paperwork without a real home address was just too much trouble.

Problem solved when R.J., who didn’t want to give her last name, showed up at a voter registration event on East Colfax Avenue in Aurora this week created to help homeless people register to vote.

The event was held by Colorado Secretary of State Wayne Williams. The first-term Republican said it was the first-of-a-kind event for the office that oversees elections.

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Claudia Frey-Grant, with Metro Community Provider Network, waves to people during a voter registration drive for the homeless on Tuesday Aug. 23, 2016 at MLK Library. Photo by Gabriel Christus/Aurora Sentinel

20160823-Homeless-Aurora, Colorado

Aurora City Council members agreed to move forward with creating at least a temporary day shelter for homeless individuals to be located at the World War II-era barracks that sit on the Anschutz Medical Campus and formerly served as the Aurora Police Department’s training center. The barracks were originally part of the Fitzsimons Army Medical Post Photo by Gabriel Christus/Aurora Sentinel

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on Tuesday Aug. 23, 2016 at MLK Library. Photo by Gabriel Christus/Aurora Sentinel

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Wayne Williams, Secretary of State of Colorado talks to a small crowd during a voter registraion drive for the homeless on Tuesday Aug. 23, 2016 at MLK Library. Photo by Gabriel Christus/Aurora Sentinel

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Virgil Berry and Laurence Chambers, Homeless veterans, sit on a bench during a voter registration drive for the homeless on Tuesday Aug. 23, 2016 at MLK Library. Photo by Gabriel Christus/Aurora Sentinel

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James Gillespie, with Mile High Behavioral Healthcare, talks with homeless people during a homeless voter registration drive on Tuesday Aug. 23, 2016 at MLK Library. Photo by Gabriel Christus/Aurora Sentinel

Williams said every eligible person should be able to vote, whether they have a home or not.

“Right now, I don’t have stable sustainable, suitable housing,” R.J. said, explaining that you can’t get a mail-ballot if you don’t have a postal address to send it to. “I feel unfairly and unjustly disenfranchised.”

At the registration event Tuesday, R.J. was able to give the address of Aurora Comitis shelter as her residence. She said she closely follows state and local ballot issues, and she was looking forward to weighing in on this year’s contentious presidential election.

Williams said that’s just what he wants to hear.

“We want to encourage everyone who has that opportunity to take advantage of it,” Williams said in front of a small crowd gathered in front of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Aurora Public Library on East Colfax Avenue. “We all have much at stake in what’s going to happen.”

The event titled “Homeless, not Voiceless” was sponsored by several area nonprofits, including Aurora Mental Health, Comitis Crisis Center and the Colfax Community Network.

According to the Colorado Secretary of State’s office, anyone who resides permanently in a recreational vehicle or does not have a permanent residence is eligible to vote if they have proper identification. That means a voter who resides in an RV can use the campground they are staying at as their voter address. Parks, vacant lots, and homeless shelters can also be used as one’s “home base” when registering to vote. Post Office boxes can be used as mailing addresses for voter registration, but cannot be used for a voter’s residence, according to the Secretary of State’s office.

Secretary of State voting records show that 1,499  active voters are registered at the St. Francis Center on Curtis Street, 72 at the Denver Rescue Mission on Park Avenue West and 71 at the Samaritan House on Lawrence Street. In Aurora, there are seven active voters each registered at Aurora Warms the Night and Comitis Crisis Center.

James Gillespie, community impact and government relations liaison at Comitis Crisis Center, said at Tuesday’s event, individuals just needed the last four digits of their social security card to register. He said their IDs would be necessary for when they go to an election center to cast their ballots by Nov. 8.

The state lists 14 acceptable documents residents can use to vote that include a drivers license, a passport, a two-month old utility bill, Medicare or Medicaid card, or a veteran ID card issued by the Department of Veterans Affairs. Colorado Legal Services, Metro Care Ring, the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless and Denver Human Services have programs to assist homeless individuals who need an ID.

“Many service providers including Comitis already ask folks if they would like to register to vote when receiving services,” Gillespie said.

He and others say they’ve seen a marked spike in the number of homeless people in Aurora.  He said it’s too soon to tell whether the increasing number of homeless in Aurora is due to Denver’s camping ban, or any one factor.

In March, the city of Denver enforced an urban camping ban and officials stirred controversy by dismantling some semi-permanent homeless encampments there. It’s a problem confronting fast-growing cities across the country as affordable housing becomes scarcer, and developers want the valuable land.

But he said Comitis has seen its Aurora shelter filled beyond capacity several times this year. Comitis is the only overnight and emergency homeless shelter located in the city, adjacent to the Anschutz Medical Campus and East Colfax Avenue.

For the first few months of this year, Gillespie said the shelter was at 108-percent capacity with its 139 beds. He said the shelter was able to provide more room than the 139 beds because staff removed tables from the dining room to put down mattresses and cots during cold-weather alerts.

“In the first three months of 2016, we had our beds full and we had 2,976 incidences of being at capacity,” Gillespie said.  “Already in the first quarter of this year, we have seen more instances of turnaway than all instances of turnaway during the first six months of last year.”

Unlike Denver, Aurora is not enforcing an urban camping ban, but is instead attempting to provide more resources for homeless people coming to the city.

Aurora City Council members recently approved using $4.5 million expected from marijuana sales tax through 2018 to fund homeless initiatives that include expanding the outreach services provided by Comitis as well as financially supporting a nonprofit that provides shelter vouchers to homeless families. This month, the city hired its first homeless program director to serve Aurora’s at-risk populations.

While the burgeoning homeless population has myriad problems, ensuring a right to vote warrants the attention it’s getting, election officials and homeless activists say.

This year, Colorado’s Republican-led Senate failed to advance a bill requiring photo IDs for residents voting in person as well as passing legislation that would no longer allow people to use utility bills, bank statements, paychecks or Medicaid or Medicare cards as proof of ID and residency. The bill was killed in the Democratic-led House State, Veterans and Military Affairs committee.

Senate Democrats argued the bill would disenfranchise thousands of voters, not only homeless people, but seniors as well. They pressed their Republican colleagues for proof of a voter fraud problem in Colorado.

In 2013 former Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler launched a large-scale investigation of state voter fraud that two years later, identified one fraud case out of more than 100 suspects.

At the Aurora event, Williams, Gessler’s successor, said his office has been trying to make it easy for residents to vote.  He pointed to a new feature for Colorado voters this year that allows them to text “Colorado” or “CO” to “2Vote” (28683) on a smartphone. The phone receives a reply with a link to the secretary of state’s voter registration page.

The Government Accountability Office in 2014 found voter ID laws could reduce voting by 2 to 3 percent, particularly among young people, blacks and newly registered voters. That can tip a race in close contests.

GOP legislators cite voter fraud, including those who impersonate dead people on voter registration lists, although studies found the number of actual cases was minuscule.

Aurora gives first OK to a homeless day resource center on Anschutz campus

As more and more Aurora residents are getting higher, so, too, could the taxes they pay to partake in the city’s recreational marijuana — and homeless people may benefit from the potential hike.

In July of next year Aurora city officials are looking to increase the city’s marijuana sales tax from 5.75 percent to 7.75 percent.

City officials say the increase would be a wash for pot customers because in June of next year,  the state sales tax on recreational marijuana  will decrease from 10 percent to 8 percent, according to rules set by House Bill 15-1367 that was passed in 2015.Aurora At-large Councilman Bob LeGare, who proposed the measure, said it would be a way to fund more homeless services in Aurora, specifically a day center.

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Aurora City Council members agreed to move forward with creating at least a temporary day shelter for homeless individuals to be located at the World War II-era barracks that sit on the Anschutz Medical Campus and formerly served as the Aurora Police Department’s training center. The barracks were originally part of the Fitzsimons Army Medical Post Photo by Gabriel Christus/Aurora Sentinel

20160823-Homeless-Aurora, Colorado

Aurora City Council members agreed to move forward with creating at least a temporary day shelter for homeless individuals to be located at the World War II-era barracks that sit on the Anschutz Medical Campus and formerly served as the Aurora Police Department’s training center. The barracks were originally part of the Fitzsimons Army Medical Post Photo by Gabriel Christus/Aurora Sentinel

20160823-Homeless-Aurora, Colorado

on Tuesday Aug. 23, 2016 at MLK Library. Photo by Gabriel Christus/Aurora Sentinel

20160823-Homeless-Aurora, Colorado

Aurora City Council members agreed to move forward with creating at least a temporary day shelter for homeless individuals to be located at the World War II-era barracks that sit on the Anschutz Medical Campus and formerly served as the Aurora Police Department’s training center. The barracks were originally part of the Fitzsimons Army Medical Post Photo by Gabriel Christus/Aurora Sentinel

While Aurora pot customers wouldn’t see a net change in taxes they pay for weed and edibles, the city would get more revenue under the new tax.  Currently, the city only receives 15 percent from the state’s special sales tax of 10 percent.

“We’re doing all of this work with $4.5 million,” LeGare said, referring to Aurora City Council’s decision this year to dedicate $1.5 million annually through 2018 to helping the city’s homeless. In August, Aurora used some of that money to hire the city’s first homeless program director, garnering national attention in using weed profits for public good.

LeGare, who serves on the board at Mile High Behavioral Health, said he would like to see the money from the tax increase put toward a day center in Aurora for the homeless where they could wash their clothes, take a shower and receive mental health services. He said it has been difficult to find money for the operation and maintenance of such a center.

Comitis Crisis Center, Aurora’s only overnight emergency homeless shelter, is often at capacity, according to James Gillespie, community impact and government relations liaison for Comitis.

City officials say the tax increase in 2017 would give the city an additional $750,000 on top of the $1.5 million it expects annually from marijuana sales.

Aurora Ward V Councilman Bob Roth, who helped legislate current laws for Aurora’s recreational marijuana businesses, said he supports LeGare’s measure. He said when he served on the Aurora City Council’s informal Amendment 64 committee before recreational stores were allowed to open, industry leaders were not concerned about being taxed or regulated.

“They wanted tight regulations, they wanted scrutiny,” Roth said. “They believe the good players should make the cut.”

He said that is especially true when the money is being used to fund social services and community needs.

“We’re just trying to make sure the positive things we’re doing for the community can continue to be funded,” Roth said.

Chris woods, owner and founder of Terrapin Care Station, a medicinal and recreational marijuana chain with multiple locations including Aurora, said he would support the city in raising its sales tax once the state’s decreases.

“I don’t see a difference in the eyes of consumer,” Woods said. He said Terrapin Care Station is happy to help the city fund homeless initiatives through marijuana sales.

Aurora At-large Councilwoman Barb Cleland also served on the city’s informal marijuana policy committee, but sees things differently because she said the increase could put Aurora at a competitive disadvantage.

“If we raise taxes in the city of Aurora and Denver doesn’t or Adams County doesn’t, does it then drive people eventually to other places?” she asked.

She said Aurora could already face financial impacts from more states approving recreational marijuana. Aurora Ward IV Councilman Charlie Richardson said he approves of the measure to increase the tax, but is unsure the money should be dedicated to a homeless day center. Richardson, who serves on Aurora City Council’s management and finance policy committee, said he would be bringing up his concern when the issue goes to the committee August 24. LeGare also serves as the chairman of that commitee.

Richardson said the city should also get input from its new homeless director before making any decisions for what to do with the money if city council does choose to dedicate it to homeless services.

In 2014, when Aurora started allowing recreational marijuana sales, Aurora voters  approved the city taxing up to 10 percent for recreational marijuana.

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