Volunteers help open more room for homeless at Comitis

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AURORA | Nearly 20 active duty soldiers from nearby Buckley Air Force Base carried headboards and wire frames up three flights of stairs Wednesday at the former barracks building turned homeless shelter. With the help, Mile High Council/Comitis Crisis Center doubled its emergency shelter space.

James Gillespie, spokesman for Comitis, says the new beds couldn’t come soon enough given the demand for emergency homeless shelter in Aurora.

“This year’s been like no other in our history,” he said.

In 2012, the center provided emergency, one-night shelter 1,300 times. The center serves primarily to single women and families. Just halfway through this year, Comitis provided around 4700 shelter nights, according to Gillespie. To date, Comitis has provided around 6,200 shelter nights to the homeless, according to Gillespie. Before today, the center had 40 beds for emergency shelter. The third floor of the building’s east wing was originally used for administrative offices, but Gillespie says the staff soon realized the rooms could be converted into additional housing, given that each had an attached bathroom.

“We saw those numbers because Colorado is still considered a boom economy. People migrated to our state for construction jobs. But they migrated here with their entire family and no plan. We saw around 6 times more people than we’ve ever seen in our shelter,” he said.

A 2013 point-in-time survey of 11,167 homeless people in the Denver metro area found more than half of the people surveyed lived with children. The survey, which was conducted by the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative, also found that more respondents were homeless for a longer period of time in 2013 than in prior years, and that there has been a steady decrease in rental housing vacancy rates across the metro area over the past three years.

Gillespie says having 80 beds will ensure less people are turned away on days when the state issues cold-weather warnings.

“We really didn’t have room for single men here because there were so many women with children coming,” he said of the recent arctic spell that hit Colorado and much of the Midwest just weeks ago.

On those days when the shelter was overflowing, Gillespie says that staff had to rely on the community room at the Aurora Police Station next door.

“It was tough logistically,” he said.

“We had to move all the people in emergency shelter and the staff together to go over there because we don’t have enough staff to stay here and there for emergency overnight. It’s tough when somebody settles in, they’ve had their shower, their warm food. Then it’s like, ‘Everybody get up. We have to walk across the street.’ ”

Travis Jackson, a technical sergeant with the Aerospace Data Facility at Buckley, helped put together bunks Wednesday. “Especially with Comitis, which houses veterans, it has a special place in our heart,” he said.

“For the little work we do, we have a huge impact on people’s lives. Getting them off of the ground and in bunk beds, it seems like such a simple thing. But when it gets freezing cold outside, it makes a big difference.”