The Denver Post – AURORA —City leaders are committing big money toward addressing the homeless issue here, and among the concerns is the opening of the new Veterans Affairs hospital that could attract homeless veterans who want to be close to medical services. The city plans to spend $4.5 million over the next three years to address a variety of issues regarding the city’s homeless population.
“If I’m homeless and I’m a veteran and I need help, I’m going to locate myself close to a VA hospital,” said Aurora Mayor Steve Hogan, chairman of the homeless committee of the Metro Mayors Caucus. Hogan called the new spending “unprecedented.”
“When the VA hospital opens, we may well have more people who need services at that hospital who are homeless and who right now are in Denver,” the mayor said.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has assured the city there won’t be a flock of homeless veterans heading up East Colfax Avenue to Aurora. The current VA hospital is at Ninth Avenue and Clermont Street in Denver. The new hospital in Aurora is scheduled to open in early 2018.
Daniel Warvi, a public affairs officer for the VA Eastern Colorado Health Care System, said the VA has heard the concerns of Aurora officials regarding a potential migration of the homeless to their city.
But he doesn’t see that happening. It’s not like there are “people who are sleeping in the parking garage or the basement” at the current VA hospital location, he said.
The VA has numerous programs in place to help veterans get off the streets and out of shelters to secure permanent housing, Warvi said.
Those efforts are working. According to the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative’s point-in-time survey for 2015, there were 586 veterans in the seven-county metro area who responded that they were homeless. That compares to 1,322 in 2011.
“I don’t see a big population shift,” he said.
At first glance it might seem odd that Aurora has earmarked so much money to combat homelessness when the latest point-in-time snapshot a year ago recorded only 399 homeless people — those living on the streets, in shelters or in transitional housing — in the city.
Officials acknowledge that the number is considerably higher because many are not counted.
Some are crashing on couches of a family member or friend, while others are paying their own way at seedy motels along East Colfax Avenue and still other single-parent families are sleeping in their cars with their children.
On a recent cold, damp night, people with nowhere else to go began filtering into the Comitis Crisis Center, the only homeless shelter in Aurora.
Because it was 32 degrees or below with precipitation, no one was being turned away from the 139-bed shelter, with 54 beds available for overnight stays. But on this night, people hunkered down wherever there was room; some slept on bed rolls placed on the floor.
“We’re grateful to have a place to stay,” said Misty Brown, 34, who was making plans to leave the shelter soon with her sister after securing a permanent place to call home. “It’s here.”
Like other homeless people, Brown relies on places like Comitis, which is the only real shelter in this city of nearly 350,000 residents. But the city of Aurora is launching a new effort addressing the homeless and is committing significant money on the issue.
Of the $4.5 million, $1.5 million already is budgeted for this year, funded by revenue from recreational marijuana sales in the city. Aurora city leaders will then decide how to pay for the remaining $3 million.
A coalition that includes Comitis, Aurora Mental Health and Aurora Warms the Night, which provides vouchers for homeless people to stay at area motels, and others will make recommendations to the city at the end of April on how it should proceed in addressing homelessness, both short and long-term.
But one thing is becoming clear, the city believes tackling homelessness needs to be a priority, especially with the new VA hospital opening in two years.
“I think it’s a valid point,” said Gary Sanford, executive director for the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative. “Our veterans, because of trauma and disability resulting from their service, they really are in need. We see hundreds of veterans in the region that don’t have housing, let alone their own car.”
The Comitis Crisis Center, which is on the Anschutz Medical Campus where the new VA hospital also is being built, saw 7,242 “shelter nights” last year for veterans and their families.
One of those veterans currently at the shelter is Edward Chavez, a 61-year-old Marine veteran who fought in the Vietnam War. He has lived in the shelter with his two girls, Ariana, 7, and Aleiah, 4, since February 2015.
He worked as a ramp agent for United Airlines at Denver International Airport and was living with his brother, George, until he died. Now his family calls the Comitis facility home.
He lost his job after developing cataracts in both eyes, rendering him legally blind.
“I had nowhere else to go,” Chavez said.
He had one eye fixed and is awaiting another surgery later this month so he can go back to work and secure a real home some time soon, he said.
On a recent night, his girls played in the hallways with the other children at the shelter. They didn’t have homework because they were on spring break from classes at Park Lane Elementary School. Chavez reflected on what could have been for his family if not for programs like the Comitis shelter.
“I’m comfy. My girls are comfy,” he said of his current situation. “This place has cushioned me real well.”
Carlos Illescas: 303-954-1175, email@example.com or @cillescasdp