AURORA | John Shattuck, a former naval operator and longtime United Airlines pilot, uses a motorized wheelchair to get around these days after four knee operations.
But being around other veterans at the Colorado State Veterans Home in Aurora makes the mobility challenges a bit more palatable.
“This is absolutely a wonderful place,” says the 86-year-old resident of the Colorado state veterans home located on the Anschutz Medical Campus.
Today, the veterans home at Fitzsimons is a 180-bed facility providing nursing care and a specialized 21-bed, short-term rehabilitation unit.
But city and state officials want to see more types of housing for veterans on the site, conveniently located next to a plethora of medical outfits including the University of Colorado Hospital. In coming years, the campus will also be home to a massive Veterans Affairs hospital.
With more veterans slated to need housing on the Anschutz campus, state Rep. Su Ryden, D-Aurora, said she is drafting a bill that would direct the Colorado Department of Human Services to complete the center by also providing space for homeless, low-income and disabled veterans and their families.
Ryden said the bill directs the Colorado Department of Human Services, which operates the veterans nursing home, to expand it and construct homes that provide veterans with a continuum of care. Under the measure that housing would include domiciliary and assisted living as well as transitional housing.
Ryden said she is carrying on the work of former state Sen. Stephanie Takis, who helped pass legislation to open the Fitzsimons veterans community living center in 2002.
“Right after the living center opened, we had a recession,” Ryden said. “I’ve been on the Fitzsimons nursing home advisory committee for three years. This topic came up. I wanted to try to get it rolling again.”
Ryden said the nursing home sits on about five acres of land on the southeast corner of East Montview Boulevard and Peoria Street that has been designated for veterans. She said she is working closely with the members of the United Veterans Committee and the Colorado Department of Human Services to determine what could be built with the acreage available to expand the facility.
It’s been almost 20 years since the Fitzsimons Army Base was transferred to the Fitzsimons Redevelopment Authority and a memorandum of understanding was signed between the two entities and the City of Aurora. That memorandum called for not only nursing home care for veterans but transitional housing for homeless and disabled veterans.
The Fitzsimons living center is consistently at 95 percent of capacity or higher, said Aaron Termain, division director for the state’s Veterans Community Living Centers and a 29-year Army veteran.
“The need is there from the current veteran population,” Termain said. “We’re coming out of 15-plus years of combat operations. We’ve got a lot of veterans coming to us. Wounded, injured and ill service members will need our support services in the near future.”
According to 2014 data from the Department of Veterans Affairs, Colorado is home to 413,000 veterans.
Mark Wester, director of the Office of Community Access and Independence for the Colorado Department Human Services, said the department recently completed a needs assessment study on the state’s existing veterans housing and what the state’s projected future needs will be. He said the state is looking into creating a site plan for the empty land on Fitzsimons based on the results of that study.
A plan to include a nursing home as part of the $1.7-billion Aurora VA Medical Center was nixed last year amid political turmoil over the growing cost of the project.
There is some housing for homeless vets on the Anschutz Medical Campus through Comitis Crisis Center, Aurora’ only overnight shelter.
Comitis spokesman James Gillespie said the shelter houses 25 veterans in a given year, in addition to 65 of their dependents.
“We have a private wing at Comitis designated to veterans and their families,” he said.
Aurora City Council members are also pushing for the city to use some of that vacant land around the nursing home for homeless veterans, and say it is critical that the Colorado Department of Human Services speed up the process and site plans before the VA hospital opens nearby in two years.
“The city, along with the Aurora Housing Authority, have been focused on the issue of housing for homeless veterans. In fact, we’ve been working for almost a decade to try and bring homeless veterans housing to the Fitzsimons site,” said At-Large Councilwoman Angela Lawson.
State Rep. JoAnn Windholz, R-Reunion, is also drafting a bill that would convey 1.5 acres of the nearby vacant land to the Aurora Housing Authority for a housing development similar to what’s proposed in Ryden’s bill.
Windholz said she is working with U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Aurora, on drafting that legislation.
At-Large Councilwoman Barb Cleland said she supports Windholz’ legislation because she believes the project would greatly benefit from having the Aurora Housing Authority on board and in control of at least some of the future housing on the site.
“The Housing Authority builds facilities. The state doesn’t put together housing,” she said.
Ryden said she is also interested in working with the housing authority to construct the additional housing on the site.
The Colorado Department of Human Services oversees five community living centers across the state, including Fitzsimons. The other homes are located hours from metro Denver in the more remote communities of Florence, Monte Vista, Rifle and Walsenburg.
Colorado’s Veterans Community Living Centers serve honorably discharged veterans, spouses and widows and “Gold-Star” parents, many of whose children died while serving in the Armed Forces.
“It’s in a very unique position of being in an urban environment,” Termain said of the Fitzsimons veterans community living center.
He added that because veterans make up such a small percent of the U.S. population, they can sometimes feel isolated when they are treated in general nursing homes or hospitals.
“This is a unique population. Bringing them together with people that understand that is important to them,” he said.