Aurora outreach team is on the front lines of helping those experiencing homelessness

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Posted at 9:57 AM, Apr 29, 2022

AURORA, Colo. — Back in March, Aurora City Council voted to pass an urban camping ban ordinance requiring 72-hour notice before a homeless encampment is abated.

The ordinance also requires the City of Aurora to offer people living in a homeless encampment an alternative shelter option before abatement occurs. This means there has to be sufficient shelter space available for the encampment being abated on any given day.

It's something else a two-person street outreach team with Mile High Behavioral Healthcare will soon be dealing with.

Michael Smith and Erin Kay are the only two who are part of this team. Smith has been on the job for about a year and Kay for half of that time.

Their days start bright and early. Kay picks up the shuttle bus they drive around Aurora around 7 a.m. and heads straight to the Aurora Day Resource Center where she meets Smith, who, by that time, has already plotted a few encampments they need to visit for the day.

"We pull up reports. We map out our route and everything. We try to go to where we think people are more likely to be camped at the moment. We'll do new reports with the old reports," Smith said.

The two use a system the City of Aurora has in place where residents can report things like graffiti, broken city light and, of course, encampment locations.

"We go out to tents. We try to build a network with those connections, and, you know, try to get people to come back with us so they can work with case management," Smith said.

On the morning Denver7 crews rode alongside the team, they visited two different encampments. At the first, Smith and Kay engaged with one woman, giving her a bag filled with water, food and other items she might need.

"If we can't get them housed right away, I want them to be able to survive," Kay said.

After several minutes discussing the help offered at the Aurora Day Resource Center, the team moved on to the second encampment of the day.

"That's kind of my goal, to build that rapport and make sure people can make it into the doors and then connect them with the services," said Kay.

At the second encampment, Smith and Kay spoke with several people. Two of them decided to get on the shuttle with the team and head back to the Aurora Day Resource Center to do laundry and take a shower.

"We meet a lot of new people, a lot of familiar people, and you never know," Smith said. "You see a lot of a lot of people every day going like, 'Oh, next time, next time,' and you think that's gonna be forever, but sometimes people do change their minds, and they do want to get out of there whatever funk we're in right now."

It's a tough job, but one both Smith and Kay say is near and dear to their hearts.

Smith said he decided he needed to do something to help those experiencing homelessness after making the drive out to Colorado from New Jersey and seeing how bad the problem had gotten. He said his older sister, who's a social worker, also influenced his decision

"I just did a lot of research on mental health work," he said.

For Kay, it was a more personal mission.

"I was actually homeless in another state for about 10 years," Kay said.

Now, both put all their energy into helping others try to get out of homelessness.

"I would love to be able to just wave a wand and be like, poof, here's your apartment keys," Kay said. "That's not how it works."

And though the effective date of the camping ban is Saturday, April 30, the city said Thursday it was still developing the policies related to the ban and that it would “continue to use its existing policy on camp abatement until new policies are in place.”

“As such, the city is not anticipating widespread issuance of notices or abatements to occur on April 30,” spokesperson Michael Brannen said.

Brannen said city council will be briefed on the latest developments in a May 2 study session.