Aurora Sentinel by Kara Mason

AURORA | After winning custody of his two daughters, Eddie Chavez came back to Denver hoping for a fresh start. But after the death of his brother, the Vietnam War veteran and his two young daughters had few places to turn to.

A visit to social services led Chavez to the Comitis Crisis Center in Aurora, where he could stay with Ariana, 9, and Aleiah, 6.

For places such as Comitis, the Department of Veterans Affairs can help cover the costs of housing homeless veterans. A program through the VA offers a grant per diem program to community agencies that provide services to homeless veterans. But that money doesn’t apply to a homeless veteran’s children, such was the case for Chavez and his daughters. Comitis still took them in, but it was at a cost to the shelter.

That becomes a real barrier to access and services, said James Gillespie, who works with Comitis on government relations and community impact. To combat that barrier, Aurora GOP Congressman Mike Coffman is sponsoring a bill that would give the VA the authority to reimburse homeless veteran service providers at a 50 percent rate for the cost of housing dependents.

Gillespie said that legislation, if signed into law, could be huge for the center.

“Taking care of a veteran’s family is taking care of the veteran,” he said, adding that on top of allowing the center some funding, is also all around better for the veteran to keep them with their family.

Around 11 percent of the homeless population in the Denver metro area is made up of veterans. Across the country, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, there are more than 65,000 homeless veterans and nearly 3,300 of them are women.

Gillespie said he expects that number to rise because more women are joining the military. Additionally, homeless children are more likely to stick with a mother than a father. So family services become even more critical, Gillespie said.

In Chavez’s case, family was a necessity. Shortly after arriving at Comitis, his vision began to blur and eventually he could no longer see. The VA took care of his cataracts surgery, but the recovery was long. Ariana, who was 7 at the time, helped her father with a variety of eye drops everyday.

“That was the most important thing,” she said. “Because you couldn’t mess up.”

She also became a master of the microwave, warming up food for Chavez, who couldn’t see the buttons. She helped him clean, too.

Ariana, with a calm demeanor and soft smile, joked that it was a sort of role reversal. She had to act like the parent, while her father had trouble even retrieving a glass of orange juice from their tiny refrigerator.

Now, the three live in a snug apartment near E. Mississippi Avenue and Peoria Street in Aurora with two cats and two guinea pigs. The girls said they were only supposed to have one cat, but it was lonely, so they got another. And the first guinea pig was lonely too, so Chavez went back for the second.

“We’re happy here,” Chavez said, surveying the small collection of toys in the living room. “The girls are happy here.”

Chavez is in the process of looking for a reliable babysitter for the girls so he can get back to work as a steward at a hotel. He said he enjoys doing it, and would still have a job with a local hotel, had the season not slowed down.

He credits Comitis with much of where the three are now.

“They pull you in by the hand. That’s a fact,” Chavez said of the center, adding that they offer all the resources a person needs to be successful and move on from the center.

Staff still come to check in on him and his daughters, but Chavez is confident he is on the right track. And his vision is better. On a clear day, he said he can see the snow-capped mountains in the distance.

“These are the things that warm my heart,” Gillepsie said after a meeting with Chavez, adding that the legislation would make more stories like Chavez’s possible, so he’s hopeful the bill will pass.

Back in Washington, the bipartisan Homeless Veterans Families Act was referred to the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, where Coffman is a senior member. The bill’s next stop is slated to be a House vote.

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