Aurora approves more money to prevent homelessness after a motel crisis sparks a successful housing program

The Denver suburb started a program that in 2-and-a-half years has prevented or ended homelessness for more than 1,000 households.

The King's Inn Motel on East Colfax Avenue in Aurora. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

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The King's Inn Motel on East Colfax Avenue in Aurora. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite) denver; colorado; denverite; kevinjbeaty; colfax; motel; aurora;

Donna Bryson. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

From the vantage point of a curb along East Colfax Avenue, Marc Seidenfeld offered a succinct prescription for homelessness in Aurora.

“The main thing we need is shelter and housing,” said Seidenfeld, who said he has been on the streets for five years.

From the vantage point of Shelley McKittrick, who directs the Denver suburb’s Homelessness Program, limited funds mean finding the right balance between the two.

With little discussion and no dissent during a study session Monday evening, Aurora City Council members and Mayor Mike Coffman approved McKittrick’s funding request for 2020. Her budget included a total of $45,000 for blankets and to take steps toward expanding shelter services during cold weather. That amount of money is also enough to support an annual survey of homelessness and train service providers’ staff, according to the budget.

Another $575,000 gained initial approval Monday. The bulk of that money will pay rents to keep families from being evicted and expenses to help families move into homes. Because of its size, the $575,000 expenditure needs final approval during a future City Council hearing, which it will likely get given the initial vote.

Aurora pays for such services with a 2 percent sales tax on retail marijuana.

The impetus was a crisis at a Colfax motel.

In the summer of 2017, Kings Inn at 11800 E. Colfax Ave. changed hands and overnight the new owners doubled rates for its more than 90 rooms. Faced with the prospect of hundreds of longtime Kings Inn residents on the streets, City Council approved an emergency fund of $80,000 to help households who could afford rent — they’d been paying motel bills — but not the security deposits and other barriers to an apartment. Nearly 50 Kings Inn families were housed with that $80,000. City Council then approved another $200,000 to help others get out of motels, shelters, cars and tents.

That was the beginning of what became the House Aurora Partnership. Last year the program got $500,000 and for 2019 another half-million dollars to get people into housing and to try to keep them from being evicted.

Partners include Mile High Behavioral Healthcare, which runs long-stay shelters at the Comitis Crisis Center and a day program for people experiencing homelessness on the Anschutz campus. Anshutz also hosts the Children’s, University of Colorado and Veterans Affairs hospitals, which also contribute to the House Aurora Partnership.

Outreach and social workers and other staff from hospitals and nonprofits help clients apply for House Aurora funds. In addition, Mile High Behavioral Health and Aurora Warms the Night, a nonprofit that connects people experiencing homelessness to shelter, food, clothing and other services, have taken on the administrative task of ensuring landlords are paid.

“It is a true partnership,” McKittrick said during her briefing to City Council Monday night. “No one entity could do this on their own.”

So far this year,  House Aurora Partnership has spent more than $300,000 on deposits and related housing assistance. It can be key support for the working poor.

“There are folks leaving their tent every morning and going to work,” McKittrick told City Council members.

House Aurora Partnership has spent more than $120,000 to keep people from being evicted. Prevention is cost-effective, McKittrick said, noting that once a family is evicted, some landlords will refuse to rent to them, or charge higher deposits. She said Aurora has the highest eviction rate in Colorado and the 33rd highest in the country.

Another program under the House Aurora umbrella called Homeward Bound spent just over $20,000 so far this year on bus tickets for people who can show they will be stably housed if they can get to relatives and friends outside Aurora.

Homeward Bound “is a very economical way to get people back into housing and back with family support,” McKittrick said during the City Council study session.

Overall, “I think we’re doing really good work,” McKittrick said in the interview. “We’ve been housing people straight from the street.”

In the two and a half years since Kings Inn, McKittrick said, the city of more than 380,000 people has prevented or ended homelessness for more than 1,000 households with House Aurora programs, including 368 this year.

There are challenges. McKittrick told Council members that federal subsidies weren’t keeping up with the region’s rising housing costs. In the interview, she said Aurora officials were working with Elevation Community Land Trust to ensure moderate- and low-income families could afford to buy homes. Under Elevation’s model, the land under homes is owned communally and never sold, sparing homeowners a major cost.

McKittrick also said more bridge housing — often motels and hotels — was needed for people who were awaiting permanent housing and for whom shelters were inadequate. Crowded shelters where diseases can spread easily did not work, for example, for a single mother without a home who has cancer and a weak immune system. McKittrick knows that person.

McKittrick said another way Aurora could expand housing opportunities might be to buy a hotel and turning it into permanent homes. The Colorado Coalition for the Homeless is doing that in neighboring Denver with a Park Hill hotel that will be a subsidized micro-unit apartment building to house people coming from shelters and the streets as well as for mentally ill people awaiting restoration to competency before they stand trial won’t sit in jail.

“I just don’t think we want to build more and more” shelters, McKittrick said. “It’s kind of hard to shelter your way out of homelessness.”

Housing where people can get work and education support and have access to therapy is a need across the region, said McKittrick, who also chairs the board of the Metro Denver Homelessness Initiative, which coordinates services and housing in a seven-county region.

The Metro Denver Homelessness Initiative also coordinates the annual survey of homelessness known as the Point in Time. The results have shown that on one night in January, more than 300 people are typically experiencing homelessness in Aurora, compared to more than 3,000 in neighboring Denver. Experts say that while the Point in Time can indicate trends, it is likely an undercount. McKittrick points to figures from Comitis that show more than 1,500 individuals use its shelter services.

Therapy for addiction can be among the supports people experiencing homelessness need.

“I can’t imagine what substances I’d be using if I didn’t have a home,” McKittrick said.

Seidenfeld said alcoholism and other addictions led to losing housing and has made it hard to leave the streets.

“We’re all out here for different reasons” he said. “If mental illness or addiction doesn’t make you homeless, homelessness will turn you into an addict.”

The graduate of Cherry Creek schools and CU Boulder had spent the night before in a stairwell at Children’s hospital. He’d once managed a law office. His job now, he said, is “flying a sign.” He was so hunched over his scrap of cardboard on a cold morning, it was hard for passersby to see what he’d scrawled in blue ink:

“Anything helps.”

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