TRAILING INDICATOR: The art of aiding the homeless in metro Aurora

492

DENVER | A little piece of Aurora is making its way through the Denver gallery circuit this winter.

Measuring about 6-feet-by-6-feet when pitched and half that size when collapsed, a “mobile homeless unit” crafted by middle and high school students at Downtown Aurora Visual Arts this fall is slated to be displayed in the coming months at Denver galleries and, potentially, nearby advocacy events.

Mounted on a recycled youth bicycle trailer, the unit was designed to accommodate as many as two people, as well as be easy to set up and take down, according to Rudi Monterroso, program leader at DAVA. The project was featured in the local organization’s fall gallery exhibit, entitled “Transportation,” which meshed with the year-long theme of “path for the future,” he said.

“It gave them a different perspective, more empathy for the homeless, and really encouraged them to find more ways to help their community,” Monterroso said. “In the almost six years I have been working at DAVA, I have never been so proud of my students as I was for their effort to create this project.”

Students at DAVA began their project at the end of the summer after discussions with the local homeless population, which largely occurred in the nearby plaza in front of the Martin Luther King Jr. Library, according to Monterroso.

“In getting this different view of the struggle, I was touched and all the more motivated to really make these shelters as great as possible,” DAVA junior staff student Mariana Leon said in a statement. “This project really was a different one that allowed me to help out the community, as well as doing some more hard labor — which is pretty fun as well.”

Nearly a dozen DAVA students came up with unit designs, but only two were brought to fruition after a student-led vote, according to Monterroso. The design that will be showcased across Denver was created by 12-year-old Alexis Saucedo. The other design students helped fabricate was larger and heavier, and therefore more difficult to transport, Monterroso said.

Following a nearly two-month showing at the newly refurbished DAVA gallery this fall, Saucedo’s design, built mostly using recycled polycarbonate sheeting, was also showcased at a community conversation event held at the EXDO Event Center in Denver Dec. 15. Featuring a panel of local residents, community leaders, homeless rights advocates and Denver City Councilman Albus Brooks, the event largely centered on the impacts of Denver’s controversial camping ban, which some observers have claimed pushed transient populations out of Denver and into Aurora.

While those claims are difficult to verify, local shelters have continued to operate at or near capacity this year. Aurora’s Comitis Crisis Center has regularly operated at full capacity in 2016, according to spokesman James Gillespie. He said Comitis has turned away between 2,500 to 3,000 homeless people this year. The shelter on Victor Street houses 139 beds.

Monterroso said he’s hopeful city officials will consider implementing the units throughout Aurora in an effort to provide more short-term housing in the state’s third-largest city. Though the project is merely a prototype, Monterroso said his goal would be store a cache of units in a central storage space that would be available in the evening and could be returned during the day. He estimated the units would cost about $600 apiece.

Despite those aspirations, Monterroso said conversations with the city have stalled.

“We kind of got into a dead-end when talking to the city,” he said. “It’s been frustrating for both the kids and myself.”

Shelley McKittrick, the city’s new homeless program director, lauded the students’ efforts, but said mobile units have not been a part of Aurora’s long-term plan to address homelessness.

“Any ideas that bring awareness to the issues facing the homeless community and create advocates for safety, housing and dignity are positive signs for our future,” she said in an emailed statement. “As for the city’s homelessness initiatives, mobile shelters are not currently part of our plan or our vision, which is focused on finding permanent housing solutions and getting the homeless to shelters where we they can access services such as food, training and counseling.”