No shortage of cold and homeless in Aurora, just warm places for them to stay

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AURORA | Paquita Bartice picks up a pink sleeping bag covered with images of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty and Snow White. She smiles as she hands it to a family with a young daughter.

“I’m really worried about that couple,” she says after the family leaves the supply room where shelves are brimming with scarves and a jumble of coats is piled high on a nearby table. “He’s embarrassed, and she’s kind of embarrassed, too. A big thing about being homeless is your pride. It’s so hard to say, ‘I’m homeless living in my truck.’”

It’s a frigid, 30-degree afternoon at the Aurora Warms the Night headquarters near East Colfax Avenue. The nonprofit provides motel vouchers to the homeless on the coldest nights.

Bartice, who says she was homeless for four years before she got off of the waiting list for low-income housing in Fletcher Gardens, is helping those who come in from the cold find clothing, food, shampoo and anything else that can help them survive at least two days of frigid weather.  Most visitors she greets say they started lining up outside for the limited motel vouchers as early as 7 a.m.

The nonprofit’s staff estimate by the end of the day they’ll have handed out 26 motel vouchers that will keep 60 people warm that night.

They guess they’ll have to turn at least a dozen people away and provide them with bus passes to Comitis, Aurora’s only homeless shelter across town.

It’s proved a record winter for Aurora Warms the Night, says Mary Lewis, president of the nonprofit’s board of directors.

“We’ve already had the longest (emergency) activation ever, 13 nights,” she says in reference to the cold spell that descended on the Front Range during the holidays, causing temperatures to dip into the single digits.

“We housed 85 people in 35 motel rooms and provided food bags for them everyday,” she says. “Last season we had 36 nights of shelter. This season we’ve already had 26 nights.”

Like Aurora Warms The Night, homeless services at Comitis are stretched thin.

The center, located on the Anschutz Medical Campus, provided 17,856 shelter nights in 2014 and expects that number to grow this year.

Record cold temperatures in Denver and Aurora in the final week of 2014 pushed Comitis to capacity, leaving the staff little to serve beyond beans during the holidays. It was through emergency donations coordinated by the Havana Business Improvement District, Aurora Police and City of Aurora employees that Comitis received beef, burritos and canned goods to keep up with the influx.

“We believe a number of families and individuals coming to Colorado from surrounding states are looking for jobs here,”says Comitis spokesman James Gillespie, pointing to Colorado’s economy compared to the rest of the nation.

A 2014 point-in-time survey showed that homelessness impacts families particularly hard. The survey, which was conducted by the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative, found that 53 percent of the respondents lived in households with children.

For a city of 350,000 with limited shelter space, the Aurora Community Outreach Team, or ACOT, is another resource for the homeless on cold nights, says Aurora police Capt. Vanessa Wilson. The bus, which is staffed by Aurora police and mental health professionals scours the city’s homeless hangouts during cold nights, providing food, supplies and rides to shelters for those in need.

In its first year of operation from 2013 to 2014, ACOT transported 42 people to area hospitals, shelters and detox facilities.

Aaron Gagné, Aurora’s interim neighborhood services director, says the city increased its budget for homeless services by $192,000 in 2015 as a way to address a growing homeless population. Most of that money went toward making 80 emergency overnight shelter beds at Comitis available to the homeless on a 24-hour, year-round basis.

He says the city is also focused on providing more affordable housing through constructing new units and rehabilitating older buildings.

He points to the city’s Supportive Housing Toolkit program, where Aurora is working with consultants on affordable housing projects that are being pitched to investors as part of a competitive application process.

“The other piece is comprehensive renovations to buildings,” he says. “We’ve been involved in a 55-unit rehabilitation on Beeler Street. We’re also updating a six-plex on Boston street … A shelter is a last resort. We’re trying to emphasize more permanent housing options.”