Havana Street leaders confronting homelessness on Aurora’s western edge

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AURORA | Gayle Jetchick has been spending more of her time these days handing out bus passes — 19 of them since March.

“I gave four of them out the other day,” she said pointing to a local, one-way, lime green bus ticket attached to a map with directions to Comitis Crisis Center. Located on the Anschutz Medical Campus, Comitis is Aurora’s only homeless shelter, and is about three miles northeast of the Havana Business Improvement District, of which Jetchick is executive director.

“People are grateful for it,” Jetchick said.

In the past month, Jetchick said she has spent $100 out of her own pocket paying for the bus passes to hand out. Along with the map, Jetchick includes a “homeless resource guide” created by the City of Aurora that lists the locations of nearby nonprofits where people can get a hot meal, clothing and medical care. It also lists services for veterans, who in the Denver metro area make up 12 percent of those experiencing homelessness, according to the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless.

Jetchick said that since this time last year, the Havana BID — which spans four miles along Havana Street and is home to one of Aurora’s busiest shopping hubs — has seen a large uptick in the number of people soliciting business owners, camping in parking lots and sleeping in nearby ditches and under trees. 

Right now, the Havana BID — home to 500 businesses ranging from big companies such as Sprouts and Target mixed in with smaller ethnic restaurants and services — has 15 “no trespassing” signs listed on various doors and in some parking lots. But Jetchick said area businesses are looking to add 30 more in coming months.

Traci Anderson, general manager at a Denny’s on Havana Street, said she recently had to call the police because two people were loudly arguing beneath a stand of fir trees outside the restaurant. Hidden behind the branches are remnants of cardboard boxes, a blue rain jacket and a black shoe along with the occasional beer and soda can scattered among twigs on the ground.

“I live right around here and I know going through the Target parking lot, you do see panhandlers because they’re pushing them out of Denver,” said Colleen Youngpeter, a bartender at nearby Gibby’s, a sports bar and grill.

In March, the City of Denver enforced an urban camping ban and officials stirred controversy by dismantling some semi-permanent homeless encampments there. It’s a problem confronting fast-growing cities across the country as affordable housing becomes scarcer, and developers want the valuable land.

James Gillespie, community impact and government relations liaison at Comitis Crisis Center in Aurora, said it’s too soon to tell whether the increasing number of homeless in Aurora is due to any one factor.

But he said Comitis has seen its Aurora shelter filled beyond capacity several times this year. For the first few months of this year, Gillespie said the shelter was at 108 percent capacity with its 139 beds. He said the shelter was able to provide more room than the 139 beds because staff removed tables from the dining room to put down mattresses and cots during cold-weather alerts. 

“In the first three months of 2016, we had our beds full and we had 2,976 incidences of being at capacity,” Gillespie said, which means 2,976 times an individual was turned away. “Already in the first quarter of this year, we have seen more instances of turnaway than all instances of turnaway during the first six months of last year.”

Unlike Denver, Aurora is not enforcing an urban camping ban, but is instead attempting to provide more resources for homeless people coming to the city.

Aurora City Council members recently approved using some of the $4.5 million expected from marijuana sales tax over the next two years to fund a local nonprofit that helps area families who live in motels.

At an April 30 workshop, council members agreed to give $220,000 to Colfax Community Network for operating expenses through the year’s end. The nonprofit educates low-income families living in motels and apartments along the Colfax corridor about helpful community services.

Also during the workshop, council approved the advisory group’s recommendations to provide Comitis Crisis Center and Aurora Mental Health each with a van to be used for metrowide homeless outreach. Jetchick said one of those vans will be used for street outreach along Havana.

For the past few months, Leon Martin, a manager at McDonald’s at the Gardens on Havana, said he has been serving coffee to a man who lives out of a former Access-a-Ride van that sits in a nearby parking lot.

“I  don’t know his name but, yes, he comes in all the time,” Martin said. “We know they’re homeless. We give him, water, stuff like that.”

Martin said the homeless people he’s encountered at his store are friendly.

“They don’t harass people, we’ve had a couple customers buy them meals. We try and do our part. You never know. The shoe could be on the other foot at any time,” he said.

— The Associated Press contributed to this story.