Column: Advocates for homeless say Aurora needs ‘to get better’ when it comes to winter emergency shelter

Things may have finally started warming up recently but the debate over Aurora’s response to the homeless really got heated after the city-run warming center closed unexpectedly on Saturday night.

Thew Elliott, music director at Wesley United Methodist Church in Aurora, first heard about the evacuation of those using the Aurora Transportation Center as an overnight shelter around 8 p.m. that frigid evening.

The call came from Shannon Cameron, executive director of the Aurora Area Interfaith Food Pantry, asking if the church on May Street could open its doors as an emergency shelter.

Elliott recalls the thoughts that quickly raced through his mind: Although he’s not in a position with the church hierarchy to make such a decision, how could he possibly refuse such a request?

“After all,” he said, “lives were at stake.”

And so, from Saturday night through Tuesday morning, the church became a refuge for those seeking shelter from the cold.

As did Hesed House, which got a call from the city around that same time Saturday, according to Executive Director Joe Jackson, asking the Aurora homeless shelter to take in a couple dozen men, even though it was already filled to capacity – a number, by the way, that is set by the city and enforced by it.

You can see why some who deal with the area’s homeless population are convinced local leaders must figure out a better way to deal with this complex but potentially life-and-death problem.

“To me, where we spend our money shows what we as a city care about,” said Cameron. “We need to get better.”

But city officials declared good reasons for evacuating the warming center Saturday night. A man had been observed wielding a gun and threatening some of the people inside, according to the Aurora Police Department. Eliahias Martinez, 18, of Aurora, was eventually arrested and charged with armed violence and other serious felonies in connection with the incident, according to officials.

And officials also pointed out that the center was closed on Sunday - it had been scheduled to stay open until Monday morning - because the temperature that night was not forecast to drop below 15 degrees, which is the threshold for keeping it open 24 hours.

In a press release Monday, the city also cited dozens of other police incidents at the warming center. But if closing the ATC was necessary for safety reasons, asked Elliott, what does that say about allowing others in the community to take on that safety risk.

“If you are really putting people first,” he said, “that just does not make sense.”

Cameron says she understands the need for safety, but like Elliott, questions why the center was closed on Saturday after the gun threat had been removed, and why it was closed on Sunday when the wind chill remained so devastating.

“I could not have that on my conscience, even as a regular tax-paying community member,” insisted Cameron, who runs the city’s largest food pantry and is also a vocal member of a loose but emerging coalition of emergency aid advocates called Aurora Rapid Response Team.

“I can at least go to bed at night knowing I did all I could to help.”

Michelle Curiel, children and families director at Wesley, who was among a large group of residents that quickly gathered coats, blankets and other supplies necessary to turn the church into a sanctuary, also questioned the city’s response.

“We had a warm empty building, so of course we would open our doors,” said Curiel. “But people can’t keep showing up at the church. We are not a warming center .. we don’t have the supplies or proper license, for one thing.”

Hesed House does have such credentials. But Jackson points out that his organization can’t be considered the city’s “second option” as a 24-hour warming center for one simple fact: “We are full.”

Jackson does credit the city for even opening a warming center, when many other communities, including those with “shelters that have waiting lists in the triple digits,” do not offer such havens.

“It’s not easy … not everybody can work in the realm we work in. It takes special people with a lot of education and skill sets to approach these situations in the correct way,” he said. “And the city does not have that budget.”

However, part of the mission of Aurora’s growing mutual aid coalition is to work with local officials on other options. Its leaders point directly to the north, citing the new warming shelter in Elgin that was approved by the city that is open every night from Dec. 1 through March 31 at First United Methodist Church as an example of what can be done.

“That’s the kind of collaboration we would like to do here, as well, so we are not always operating in crisis mode,” said Elliott.

On Tuesday afternoon, city spokesman Clayton Muhammad told me the city is looking into “additional and alternative options for temporary warming centers in the future.”

Cameron, who spent a night helping at the church shelter, recalls the guest who had a terrible headache because he’d not been able to sleep for a few days. But when he woke the next morning, “he had tears in his eyes … he was so grateful for a good night’s sleep.”

Cameron says she only got 45 minutes of slumber herself, but tips her hat to Elliott, who was on his third day with little shut-eye as he said goodbye Tuesday morning to the last guests at this very temporary church shelter.

“We are so grateful to him and the congregation,” she said, noting that a second group had also stepped up to help, but that more faith-based organizations need to get involved.

“We all need to sit down at the table and see to it that we have a better approach to next winter,” Cameron insisted.

When I caught up with Elliott again on Tuesday, he admitted that three consecutive nights of “cat-napping” were hard. While the 62-year-old musician was buoyed by the response from people who had dropped off piles of food, coats, socks, gloves, sleeping bags and other items, he also admitted to being exhausted.

“I will sleep well tonight,” not just because he will be in his own bed but because “I know we did all we could ... we helped people survive.”