Alex Pound, a residential counselor, cleans the 180 Street Outreach van May 30 at the Comitis Crisis Center in Aurora. The goal of the 180 Street Outreach program is to establish relationships with runaway and homeless youth in Aurora who may not otherwise know about or who are hesitant to stay at the residential building Comitis Crisis Center has for them on the Anschutz Campus. (Marla R. Keown/Aurora Sentinel)

AURORA | Tiffany Christian twice found herself at Comitis, first as a homeless runaway in her teens, and later as a mother in her late twenties with a 7-year-old daughter.

“There are so many reasons why I became homeless as an adult,” said Christian, now 35 and starting her first semester at the University of Denver, where she plans to double-major in pre-law and sociology.

Christian said growing up, she often felt more safe in shelters than living with her parents, which is why she found herself revolving through group homes, foster care and juvenile facilities, and using alcohol as a way to cope.

Christian said it was finally making the decision to go back to school and attending the Community College of Aurora at 30 that changed her life.

“There is a bad stigma around people experiencing homelessness,” said Christian, who is now a part of the “Close to Home” Metro Denver Homelessness Campaign. “This campaign is important to me because fighting those stigmas will help people reach out to a neighbor, those walking past you, strangers. Once we stop thinking we know what other people are going through or how they got to where they are in life, we as community can come together.”

The campaign, which launched in November, is a statewide effort to encourage people to learn more about homelessness and help make changes to address the issue.

In January of 2015, the Denver Foundation polled 812 voters across the metro Denver area, and found more than 1-in-10 of those polled have personally experienced homelessness. Nearly half of the individuals polled also had friends or relatives who have experienced homelessness.

“We need to start changing perceptions on who experiences homelessness,” said Rebecca Arno, vice president of operations and communications for the Denver Foundation. Arno said the purpose of the campaign is to remind residents that it can happen to anyone.

Another misconception people have, the poll found, is that residents underestimate the number of families that make up the state’s homeless population. According to the foundation, families with children make up more than half of metro Denver’s homeless population.

This was something Christian also said she saw while living in area homeless shelters.

“When I was living at Comitis, I saw more families than I did single people. In my room, we shared it with another woman and her daughter,”  she says.

James Gillespie, spokesman for Comitis Crisis Center, said in 2014 the shelter was at 96 percent capacity, with 80 percent of those staying at the shelter being families.

“At Comitis we see a ton of families with children,” he said. “It was only two years ago that we were able to secure city council funding to focus on also (housing) individuals.”

The Close to Home Campaign is asking residents to take action on the issue by donating items to and/or volunteering at a local shelter. They are also asking residents to write lawmakers to advocate for more affordable housing.

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