After snow started falling heavily on the afternoon of Wednesday, Feb. 25, the commute home turned into a nightmare journey for thousands across the metro area.
At the Comitis Crisis Center near the Anschutz Medical Campus, the storm triggered a true crisis for more than 150 hundred homeless persons, many of them children.
When Aurora activated its emergency services cold weather plan, all 138 beds at Comitis, the only bricks-and-mortar homeless shelter in Aurora, were already filled. Comitis then took in 38 more people, who slept across the street in the District One Police Substation. But finding enough beds to keep people out of the cold, wind and snow was only part of the challenge.
“Food goes quickly,” said James Gillespie, community impact and government relations liaison for the Comitis Crisis Center, Inc., a subsidiary of Mile High Behavioral Healthcare. “We were really stretched on food so we needed the nutritional basics—peanut butter and jelly—and we needed it fast.”
Neil Krauss, director of initiatives and outreach in the chancellor’s office, heard about the food shortage from the Aurora Chamber of Commerce and passed the information along to Chancellor Don Elliman and Vice President for Health Affairs Lilly Marks. Their email appeal to faculty, staff and students opened the floodgates.
“The morning that note went out, our two lines lit up, and we fielded hundreds of calls from the campus,” Gillespie said. “People were asking, ‘What do you need? How can we help?’ You gave us two tons of food, more than 200 gallons of milk, too much bread to count and more than $3,800 in donations.”
Mama Dee, the Cordon Bleu-trained chef at Comitis, normally can plan meals based on predictable needs. One floor of the shelter is devoted to families with children; they can stay up to eight months. Another wing houses women in the judicial system who can stay up to six months. Yet another wing provides a temporary home to women veterans who can stay up to two years. The main floor of the shelter offers emergency overnight beds for homeless people who might stay one night, get a hot shower and good meal and then go back on the street.
But last week, when the weather turned snowy and cold and didn’t improve, everyone in the shelter hunkered down—and everyone needed to be fed.
“All of a sudden, with four, five days of bad weather, we have everyone staying in the building all the time,” Gillespie said. “We had to provide three to four times the meals we normally provide.”
Comitis, which means friendship in Latin, has responded to need with quick action in the past. In 2013, the homeless shelter operated at 98 percent capacity. By moving its administrative offices offsite, Comitis added 40 new beds in the administrative space. But even with that many new beds, the shelter operated at 96 percent capacity in 2014 providing 49,174 shelter nights and more than 65,744 meals. At any given time, 60 percent of the people staying at Comitis are under the age of 18.
“We are on the Colfax corridor,” Gillespie said. “When the Denver shelters fill up, people migrate with their families down Colfax to our shelter. I have seen single mothers walk for miles, with their children in tow.”
Comitis: Still needed
Comitis, a yellow-brick building at 2178 Victor St., just about 30 steps east of the University Physicians, Inc. parking garage, has been serving the homeless for more than 44 years. The outpouring of support from the Anschutz Medical Campus has solved an immediate crisis, but the shelter still has needs. Gillespie ticked off his biggest dreams:
“Three brand-new microwaves, a big new freezer and laminate flooring to replace the carpet. Carpet is a nightmare for a homeless shelter.”
In addition, there are smaller needs:
- Laundry detergent
- Bulk paper items
- Paper plates, forks, knives, spoons
- New socks, new underwear all ages, all sizes
- Toilet paper
- Winter gloves for children
Donations are accepted online at ColoradoGives.org and Gillespie offers tours of the shelter for prospective volunteers from CU Anschutz. The next available tour is in April. To make a reservation, contact him at [email protected].
Meanwhile, Gillespie says he has learned something about CU Anschutz.
“You’re a good neighbor,” he said. “You saw a neighbor in need and you stepped up quickly and efficiently and then you asked, ‘What else can we do?’”
Published March 4, 2015
Contact: [email protected]