You’ve seen them myriad times. Panhandlers on highway off-ramps, along Colfax and even shopping center parking lots, representing Aurora’s homeless.
But what you’ve seen is only a small part of the problem of a growing number of people who have no home. The biggest and most difficult problem about homelessness is what you can’t see.
You can’t see single moms living in cars with two or three kids, parked on busy streets at night, in places where they go unnoticed, often on purpose. You can’t see the teenage girl “couch surfing” among friends and acquaintances, because she no longer welcomes her home, or is no longer welcome there. You can’t see the family of immigrants squeezing into a small home with several other families because there simply isn’t enough money to make their own home. You can’t see the veteran who spends most of his or her time on an RTD bus, or Downtown, and then quietly slips under a bridge or under shrubs in an office complex for the night.
The problem of homelessness in Aurora is pervasive and complex. The visible panhandler that irks so many city lawmakers is but a small part of the dilemma.
There was a time when the standing joke in Aurora was the response of more than one city official: What homeless problem? Denying it or dismissing it went on for years.
Now, Aurora is taking a lead position in the metro area in not only recognizing that homeless is much more than the cliches so many of us consider, but it’s creating programs to make a real difference. This week, the city announced that Shelley McKittrick will serve as the city’s first homeless program director. It’s a vivid and welcome change from a government that saw homelessness as something to be shrugged off, and the homeless as a nuisance best chased into Denver.
While Aurora for years has at least recognized the growing problem of homeless residents, and residents who are frequently at risk for being on the streets, they’ve been unwilling or unable to do much. Problems like this are often seen as issues the state must address, through the county government. Split by counties, Aurora has had no luck finding substantial, sustained funding and assistance from Adams and Arapahoe counties to make a difference. Issues like that frequently become compelling arguments as to why Aurora should create its own city-county government.
McKittrick and renewed focus on the problem by Aurora may change all this. McKittrick has vast experience managing cases and programs, from California to Denver, serving a wide range of people in need, almost all struggling with being homeless or in danger of becoming homeless.
“Aurora sits in three counties, spans five school districts and is growing rapidly. It is essential that we gather all of the stakeholders together to coordinate our efforts to assure pathways to stable housing, with effective supportive services, for families and individuals experiencing homelessness,” McKittrick said. “I look forward to helping bring all these folks together to develop achievable solutions focused on people’s economic, physical, mental and social well-being.”
And that’s exactly what it will take. No one entity or person can solve this problem, but a concerted and sustained effort can make a big difference in helping people get jobs and services and bridges that can help find them permanent homes.
This is much more than just expanding shelters or making room at cheap motels. It’s much more than legislation such as Denver’s which seeks to shoo homeless people off busy streets and hustle them onto makeshift campgrounds in parks along trails. It’s about offering a solution for everyone who has no home, solutions that keep them out of cars, alleys and overcrowded crash pads.