PERRY: Open your hearts and minds — don’t give homeless naiveté a place to stay in Aurora

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Here’s what you don’t know: You come across homeless people every day and are totally unaware of it.

Here’s something else you don’t know: Unexpectedly, Aurora is perilously close to discriminating against homeless people and dragging a mountain of woe on top of itself.

Here’s how the dangerous and surprising part is about to go down. No so many years ago, Aurora was laughed at because some city leaders scoffed at the idea that there was a problem with homeless people in the city.

For many reasons, that changed a few years ago and Aurora has been creating all kinds of programs for the homeless. Aurora Warms the Night offers temporary motel rooms during the worst of the winter to keep people from freezing to death. The city has expanded its support of the Comitis Crisis Center, which focuses on women, teens and families in the worst of situations. And just months ago, Aurora made international headlines by announcing it would use recreational marijuana tax money to help fund programs for the area’s homeless. There’s actually someone at the city in charge of analyzing the problem and offering solutions.

From zero to hero. Pretty cool.

So I was shocked by Aurora Sentinel reporter Quincy Snowdon’s story about Councilwoman Renie Peterson’s nuclear-strength effort to shut down one of the most innovative and promising homeless programs in the state — even before it opens.

It’s called Bridge House. Leaders of the group want to model it after their Boulder successes. It involves creating an apartment-like community that takes in thoroughly screened homeless people. The lucky ones selected as most likely to succeed are then trained for jobs, provided health care, maybe sent to school and coached in how to move onto their own home — and keep it. Rather than just house people who don’t have a place to stay, the program helps them become self-sufficient and stop being homeless.

It’s brilliant. It’s effective. And it’s apparently the kind of thing everybody loves — until it comes to a neighborhood near you, or least one neighborhood in Aurora.

Bridge House wanted to convert a giant, abandoned bingo hall at East Colfax Avenue and Laredo Street into this remarkable program.

But a few weeks ago, Peterson, leading a slew of residents, demanded Aurora kill the project by twisting the zoning laws and making the project impossible to open.

City planners now want to call this project “congregate living.” It’s a made-up word from a few years back to describe things like nursing homes, hospices and assisted-living centers. In reality, it’s multi-family living, and the building is in an area zoned for just that.

Peterson is asking the city to amend its zoning code so she can keep Bridge House from moving into the old bingo parlor in a neighborhood composed of vacant lots, a junk yard, horse properties, modest homes, warehouses, trailer parks, apartments, a lot of vacant strip-mall units and other way-east Colfax things that are part of life in those parts.

Peterson wants to take advantage of the fact that the bingo hall is slightly less than 1,000 feet from an elementary school in order to snuff it under her new rules. She also wants to make it even harder to open these “congregate living” facilities in Aurora by limiting them to two per council ward.

It’s ridiculous. First off, it’s premised on what you probably don’t know; that you come across homeless people all the time and don’t know it because they don’t look like the stereotype you’re expecting. They’re moms and dads, middle-school kids, grandpas, grocery store employees, gift-shop workers, landscapers and office workers. They live in cars, “surf” from sofa to sofa, camp under bridges, anything to get by. They were probably pretty poor, and a broken leg, a broken-down car or something like it started a chain reaction that ended up with them no longer having a place to call home. The Aurora program would mirror the successful Boulder project, which provides space for about 44 people. It pushes them to get jobs no later than 9 months in and then move to permanent homes by three months later.  Only applicants who undergo extensive screening are even considered — unlike a bingo hall, where everyone’s allowed in. A more controversial aspect allowing participants on parole was taken off the table just to ensure it didn’t scuttle the program.

Too bad. Peterson doesn’t want it no matter how much the city says it’s reaching out to homeless people who just need help finding a way. Reach for them somewhere else.

Besides making Aurora look foolish by prohibiting a program like this in a perfectly compatible setting, Peterson’s move sets the city up for a lawsuit by clearly discriminating against homeless people. If congregate living includes bedridden old people, those facilities, too, must play by the same zoning rules.

What Peterson doesn’t get is that homeless people in a specialized apartment setting like this aren’t a problem. The ones pestering Colfax customers, sleeping under bridges near Laredo Elementary School or inside cars parked in strip malls in this neighborhood are a serious problem.

Aurora finally got its priorities straight, now maybe they can help Peterson get hers on track, too.

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