Candace doesn’t particularly like sleeping outside, whether in the heat of the summer or the frigid winter. But as one of Aurora’s estimated 500 individuals experiencing homelessness, she doesn’t have much of a choice. The city’s only homeless shelter requires that its guests leave early in the morning, and after a bad night’s sleep in the crowded space, Candace is forced to sleep wherever she can outside.
And if it isn’t private property owners or Aurora police officers interrupting her sleep, it’s the raccoons.
“Guess what woke me up this morning. It was five raccoons!” laughs Candace, who asked that her last name not be published. “I had to tell ’em to get the hell away.”
But Candace, along with other Aurora residents experiencing homelessness, may not have to worry about being harassed during the day anymore. The Aurora Day Center, which opened Monday, July 17, is intended to give individuals experiencing homelessness a place to go during the day. The space, an old gym for the Aurora Police Department, was renovated with $900,000 in marijuana tax revenue.
At the center, the homeless will be able to sleep in plush recliners during the day and gain access to basic services like food, clean water and a safe place to be. But the space does more than offer basic amenities, says Stephanie Kok, a staffer at the day center and the volunteer coordinator at Mile High Behavioral Healthcare, which runs the nearby Comitis shelter.
“We will be servicing basic needs, but not only that,” says Kok. “We want to create an environment of resiliency. These situations are hard, beyond hard. Understanding the science of anxiety, we are asking: What can we do to counteract that?”
Fostering a community is one of the most important ways to build a sense of well-being, explains Kok, who expects many familiar faces from Comitis at the day center. That means that those who take advantage of the center will “have a sense of community and take care of each other.”
The center will also offer a slew of resources designed to help the homeless survive life on the streets and transition into housing. Doctors will be available for basic medical checkups, acupuncturists for pain relief, and free haircuts will be given every month — and that's just “the tip of the iceberg” in what will be provided, says Kok.
Most important, the staff will respond to the needs of their guests. “It's easy for a lot of privileged people to get together in a room and decide what is best for homeless folks” instead of listening to their needs, Kok says.
The Day Resource Center is just one of the ways in which the City of Aurora is tackling homelessness. Under the direction of homeless-program director Shelley McKittrick, who was appointed last year, the city has put aside $1.5 million of marijuana tax revenue specifically to provide services for the homeless.
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Last month, the city announced the opening of the day center with the one-day Aurora Homeless Connect fair, which offered services to a large turnout of homeless Aurorans in order to spread the word about the center.
Aurora has also provided low-income residents who were displaced from the massive King's Inn Motel last month with funds for a security deposit and first and last months' rent, which can be a major barrier to accessing housing. Aurora City Council will consider whether to increase that program's funding next week.
One individual experiencing homelessness, who asked to remain anonymous, believes that the day center and other programs will keep Aurora’s homeless from heading to Denver’s crowded shelters and parks for help.
“Hell, yeah, it will help,” he says. “Nobody wants to deal with Denver anyway. When you go downtown and ask for help, you just get led on and bounced around.”