A Friend for the Homeless in Aurora

By Danielle Krolewicz | Photos by Giles Clasen

Photo by Giles Clasen.In a five-story former military barracks on the Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora, Comitis Crisis Center (CCC) has 139 beds for individuals and families experiencing homelessness. It is the only place in Aurora to offer 24/7 emergency shelter.

Comitis, which is Latin for friend, began 45 years ago in the basement of St. Pius church. It is now located on what was previously the Fitzsimons Army Medical Center. The campus, which is still home to the Army Reserves, also houses various medical professionals such as Mile High Behavioral Healthcare (MHBHC), of which Comitis is a subsidiary. 

Among the programs Comitis offers are emergency shelter for individuals and families, transitional shelter for homeless veterans and their families, transitional shelter for TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) clients from Arapahoe and Adams counties, and street outreach. 

Because of the vicinity of Comitis to the Colfax corridor, they serve a wide range of people, but predominately see single mothers with an average of three to five children. The bed breakdown is 32 family (including TANF clients and clients fleeing domestic violence), eight second chance (reserved for women transitioning back into the community after being incarcerated), 48 emergency overnight singles, 18 family beds for veterans, 25 emergency overnight families, and eight moveable spots that are flexible based on family size and need. According to James Gillespie, director of development at Comitis, there is a constant game of “Comitis Tetris” to utilize all available bed space while keeping families together. 

In addition to the “human need pyramid,” as Gillespie calls the basic needs of food, clothing, and shelter, many other wrap-around services are provided to those receiving assistance from Comitis. Staff at Comitis employ motivational interviewing in order to empower those clients seeking services, offering a strength-based approach to case management. “At Comitis, we believe self-sufficiency equals dignity,” said Gillespie. “Teach people to fish, don’t give them a fish.” 

Frances Gonzalez folds laundry at Comitas. Comitas launders all of the bedding for all 139 beds each day.“We have a pragmatic approach that involves joint decision-making versus being prescribed and told what to do,” said Gillespie. There can be a disconnect between service providers and clients. The trauma-informed approach means meeting clients where they are when they arrive at Comitis. “It is unreasonable to make people think the way we think,” said Gillespie. “It is our goal to respond to people’s needs in the way they would.” 

Transportation, a common barrier, is made available to clients by company vans that bring people seeking services directly to the shelter. In addition, a lottery system is in place for those seeking emergency shelter. Potential clients are not asked to line up to secure a spot but instead call the Comitis hotline and are assigned a number. Numbers are then randomly chosen on a daily basis and notified via an automated recording, so those who do not have a spot for that night don’t waste time and resources. 

Money, another barrier, is addressed through comprehensive, individualized financial literacy. Employees of Fitsimmons Credit Union, just across the street, meet one-on-one with clients and pull their credit reports and bank statements and work with them to create a plan of action to reduce credit card debt and recidivism.

The proximity to the Anschutz medical campus and affiliation with MHBHC is an asset for Comitis and those it serves. Metro Community Provider Network (MCPN) is on-site once a week to provide basic health screenings of clients at the shelter. Clients are also immediately enrolled in Medicaid on site, allowing them access to treatment for mental health, substance abuse, and HIV.

“Homelessness is a symptom, not a diagnosis,” said Gillespie. “Trauma and mental health are the roots, the underlying factors; substances and other coping mechanisms are the branches, the part that is visible.”

Gillespie cited changes in the city of Aurora as a primary factor for increased awareness and funding around the issue of homelessness. There have been proactive measures from the City Council to address home loss and the lack of affordable housing. In 2010 the Aurora@Home plan, the product of a collaborative of agencies in Arapahoe, Douglas, and Adams counties, was developed as the City of Aurora’s ten-year plan to end homelessness. Then, in 2014, the City Council and Mayor Steve Hogan declared it a citywide priority to address homelessness. 

“[The City Council] have allocated staff time to working with providers to help better coordinate services for the homeless,” said Gillespie, “as well as coordinate planning of future housing projects…They are adding funding to increase the amount of singles we can serve in our emergency overnight shelter, as well as help to install a new day services program for those in need.”

Deanna Turner began making Thanksgiving Dinner for Comitas in September. Turner, a chef who previously worked at the Broadmor in Colorado Springs, says it takes her several months to prepare the appropriate feast.In 2014, Comitis received $250,000 through the Nexus grant from the Aurora City Council to make repairs and increase the capacity of the shelter. Comitis used the money to move its administrative offices from the location on Victor St. to an off-site building on Chambers St., which created room for an additional 40 beds in the former office space. The result: 65,744 meals and 49,174 bed nights were provided last year. Still, there is not enough room at Comitis to meet the needs of the community. In quarter one of 2015, 910 people were turned away, and in quarter two 400-500 have been turned away thus far. 

“The City partnered with Aurora-based agencies to engage in the Governor’s Front Range Toolkit process in order to queue up projects that will address the great need for permanent supportive housing with services,” said Gillespie.

Among other community partnerships, Comitis works with the Aurora Police Department (APD) to serve those experiencing homelessness. 

“APD provides sensitivity training in the realm of homelessness and those who may be experiencing a mental health episode,” said Gillespie. “They are great partners in referring folks to the shelter as well as helping to get people into shelter during cold weather alerts.” In turn, Comitis utilizes the APD to complete immediate background checks of new guests. All of this leads to better cross-sector understanding and communication between agencies serving the homeless.

“It is our goal to create a continuum of care,” said Gillespie, “to provide as much as possible in-house.” ■