Denver Post –  Amid pushes to oust homeless camps in downtown Denver, Aurora is leading a metro area charge this year on innovative efforts to address and advocate for issues affecting the homeless population.

From nuanced funding mechanisms for increased emergency resources to a dedicated homelessness program director and outreach events to register people experiencing homelessness to vote; Aurora, area nonprofits and city affiliated organizations are making a concerted push to bring the issue of a rising homeless population to the forefront of city culture and development.

“‘We the people’ doesn’t mean we, the housed people. This is a democracy. We are the people, housed or unhoused,” said James Gillespie, community impact and government relations liaison for Mile High Behavioral Healthcare in Aurora. “It’s important to recognize that people experiencing homelessness are part of the community.”

Gillespie is also the spokesperson for the Comitis Crisis Center, Aurora’s only homeless shelter, based on the outskirts of the Anschutz Medical Campus. On a recent day, Gillespie, members of Aurora’s City Council and Colorado Secretary of State Wayne Williams gathered outside the Martin Luther King Jr. Library on East Colfax and kicked off the city’s first outreach event to register people undergoing homelessness to vote.

“These people care a lot about how the economy is,” Williams said. “If you’re in a position where you don’t have a home, I think that’s of great concern and interest to you.”

In Colorado, a citizen does not need a permanent address to vote, just a mailing address. Places like the St. Francis Center in Denver provide mailing services for transient people provided they have identification. During the event, information on receiving IDs and linking up with the St. Francis Center were provided to the approximately 15 people who registered to vote.

“The rising cost of finding just a one bedroom apartment is pushing a lot of families out of being able to get houses,” Gillespie said. “There is real marginalization of these populations as the competition for housing becomes more extreme. Those people need to join us and take action and get out there to get folks into office who want to look at affordable housing … as well as employment issues and tenant rights.”

Elected officials in Aurora have been moving toward solutions to the city’s zero percent vacancy rate for affordable housing by creating new funding for homeless resources with taxes collected from retail marijuana sales.

This year, Aurora is using $1.5 million of its revenue from marijuana sales and fees to address homeless issues. And last week, city council voted to move forward with a recreational pot sales tax increase next July, at the same time that the state is lowering its own recreational tax from 10 percent to 8 percent.

“Aurora’s ordnance for retail marijuana sales taxes says that we can raise our taxes up to 10 percent without a vote,” said Bob LeGare, at-large Aurora city councilman. “I proposed that Aurora increase its tax by 2 percent at the same time that state lowers its tax, creating a net wash to the consumer, but it raises $1.5 million per year. I believe city council should devote that to homeless services.

“That’s additional tax on top of the roughly $6 million per year that we already dedicate, ” he said.

The city is now also in the process of establishing a temporary resource center for the homeless with those earmarked funds. An old police gym on the Anschutz Medical Campus will be turned into an interim day resource center for homeless people that would operate for three to four years until the city builds a permanent day resource center.

“There are day services in Aurora, but not really places where people can stay all day to get off the streets and receive food and shelter and showers and get connected to services,” said Shelley McKittrick, Aurora’s recently appointed homelessness program director.

“It will allow the city to assist in meeting people’s basic needs for food, cleanliness and dignity and then linking them to services like Aurora Mental Health and pathways to housing, and it will help us to engage the folks that we’re not already reaching and also allow us to learn more about what the needs are of individuals and families experiencing homelessness in Aurora,” she said.

McKittrick, who is only on her third week in her uniquely designed position as a point person for the city’s response to homelessness, said that Aurora’s dedication to identifying the causes of homelessness and providing intervention, resources and counseling for those people is the way to move forward to proactively end homelessness in Aurora through a coordinated effort.

“That’s already been going on — it’s just that the city was having to pull in multiple people to do parts of this job. Now it will be more cohesive,” she said. “I’ll be working with (many stakeholders, nonprofits and agencies in Aurora) to pull together a system of care that is seamless and that makes it possible for people to not have to go to multiple agencies while seeking the assistance and care they need to reverse situations of homelessness.”

By | mmitchell@denverpost.com

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