AURORA | The narrow hallway in the second floor of an office building on Elmira Street filled quickly with hungry people looking for a meal on Monday.
Around 11:30 a.m., the door to Aurora Warms the Night’s headquarters swung open and the crowd shuffled in. Some stopped by the wall of toiletries and snagged some sun screen or a hat for the coming hot days, others chatted with the volunteers. But all of them left with a plate of pizza, some chips and something to drink.
Sarah Hamilton, the group’s executive director, said she expects about 80 to 100 people to stop by for lunch Monday through Friday until July 10.
The organization was once known simply for the hotel vouchers they gave to the homeless on the winter’s coldest nights. That is still a central piece of the group’s mission — last winter they gave out 2,500 bed nights.
But these days the organization, at 1544 Elmira St., has grown well beyond that into a sort of one-stop shop for those in need, offering free lunches on weekdays and, most importantly, linking people with the mental health and disability services that can help them stay off the streets.
Hamilton said efforts like the free lunches in the summer have been crucial because they help the organization connect with the people they traditionally serve. From there, Hamilton said she has tried to listen to what services those people need and expand what AWTN offers.
“One of the most important things for me is feeling like our clients have a voice,” she said as clients strolled through the door on a recent morning and perused the free clothes and other items on the shelves.
The services include everything from résumé-writing workshops, partnerships with Metro Community Provider Network, and linking people with food stamps or Social Security benefits.
Hamilton said every person who comes to AWTN — be it for lunch in the summer or for a warm place to sleep in the winter — gets put in touch with Aurora Mental Health. That doesn’t mean they have to sign up for addiction counseling or any mental health services, but Hamilton said she makes sure everyone at least has that chance.
“If they want to be connected then they can be,” she said.
Hamilton said the group also recently linked up with Bright by Three, a nonprofit that focuses on helping infants and toddlers develop.
That’s especially important, Hamilton said, because the organization is seeing more and more families with children in need.
“I think that’s a misconception that it’s just the single man,” she said. “Those are the clients, but it is many families, too.”
Aurora City Councilwoman Debi Hunter-Holen, who is a member of AWTN’s board of directors, said that with so many people in need, AWTN fills an important niche in the community because people know they can stop by with a variety of needs and that Hamilton and the volunteers will help.
“There is no judgment, you just get what you need,” she said.
The organization’s effort to branch out and be a comprehensive provider for people in need has been key, Hunter-Holen said, because it means they can serve not just people who need a warm place to sleep or a hot meal, but people with a whole host of needs.
“And it makes it easier for the client, they don’t have to go everywhere to get what they need,” she said.
Kelly Schlehuber, 50, said she first came to AWTN a couple years ago when she was homeless. The group helped her get back on her feet and helped her get an apartment of her own, she said.
Now, Schlehuber said, the organization is helping her furnish her apartment and they’ve helped her get connected with disability benefits.
As she ate her lunch on a bench in the hallway, Schlehuber said she knows what would have happened had AWTN not helped her out.
“I would still be on the streets, definitely,” she said.