Homeless

Aurora Opening Emergency Winter Shelter and Safe-Parking Site

Aurora is expanding its emergency winter shelter capacity.
Aurora is expanding its emergency winter shelter capacity. Conor McCormick-Cavanagh
The City of Aurora will open an emergency shelter for the cold months ahead; the lot next to the shelter will become a safe-parking site for those who have cars they would like to stay in while still having access to services.

"The emergency shelter is a way for us to make sure some of the most vulnerable members of our community have a safe place to stay while observing COVID precautions and preventing the spread of the virus," says Jessica Prosser, Aurora's director of Housing and Community Services, in a statement announcing the project.

The 100-person shelter, which will be located in a warehouse in an industrial part of northwest Aurora, will bring the city's emergency winter-shelter capacity up to 450 while still allowing for social distancing; the safe-parking site will have room for dozens more. Both the shelter and the parking site should be operational by late November or early December and will remain open through April 2021, according to Aurora officials.

"The combination of cold nights and the spread of COIVD-19 raised serious concerns about there being enough available shelter space in Aurora this winter," Prosser explains.

Mile High Behavioral Healthcare, the service provider organization that already runs the Comitis Crisis Center and Aurora Day Resource Center, will staff the emergency shelter, which will be open from 5 p.m. to 8 a.m. daily. In the morning, shelter residents will be transported to the Day Resource Center, where they'll have access to meals as well as services including housing and employment assistance.

The city will cover the shelter's $185,000 monthly bills with federal COVID-19 relief dollars, while paying for the $100,000 in setup and supply costs with money from Arapahoe County.

Aurora City Council will vote on the lease for the shelter space on November 16. "Council has been briefed on the details during their weekly Wednesday COVID updates and expressed their support. I can’t speculate on the exact vote, but there was broad support during that discussion," says Michael Bryant, a City of Aurora spokesperson.

"I definitely think it's important. It's not long-term, but I am glad that we are going to have a safe place for people during the winter months," says councilmember Crystal Murillo, whose ward includes the shelter space.

In a tweet announcing the project, Mayor Mike Coffman wrote: "Whatever we can do to move the homeless from their encampments into a safe shelter will be both compassionate to the homeless and fair to the Aurora residents who have been living next to these encampments."

During an October 19 council meeting, Coffman revealed that he was working on a camping-ban proposal, and said that he hoped that adding more shelter space would allow the city to "be more aggressive about closing down these encampments." Unlike Denver, Aurora does not have a camping ban on the books.

Having a camping ban would allow the city to more easily disperse homeless individuals sheltering in tents outdoors — but it could also open up Aurora to the kind of criticism Denver has faced since Mayor Michael Hancock signed the ban into law in 2012. Additionally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is recommending that municipalities not disperse encampments, in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Given that, there might not be the political will to pass a camping-ban proposal in Aurora. Several councilmembers have already said they would oppose such a ban. Juan Marcano, for example, says he doesn't think "Hancock's legacy is something we need to emulate here in Aurora."

"I will make a decision next month about whether or not I will introduce a camping ban for the city of Aurora," Coffman says. "In looking at the legal challenges to the Denver ordinance, having an alternative location for homeless campers to go to has been important for the survival of their camping ban."

Update: This story has been updated to include Mayor Coffman's latest comment about a camping ban.
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Conor McCormick-Cavanagh is a staff writer at Westword, where he covers a range of beats, including local politics, immigration and homelessness. He previously worked as a journalist in Tunisia and loves to talk New York sports.