How Aurora, Colorado is using mobile “public spaces” to address the challenges of suburban social service delivery

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There is perhaps no better metaphor to describe the clash of realities at play in America’s diverse suburbs than the situation unfolding in Aurora, Colorado, where a overload The Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center operates in one of the most immigrant-friendly cities.

Aurora is a suburb is large and diverse from Denver. Twenty percent of its residents were born abroad and many are refugees, speaking more than 160 languages. Aurora’s racial, ethnic and socio-economic diversity is widely representative of the present and future of American suburbs, which have seen a significant increase in the number of residents of color over the past two decades, as well as the fastest growing rates of poverty in the nation.

Despite the increase in suburban poverty nationwide, social services have not caught up to the needs of residents in sprawling suburbs, and nonprofits often have to expand their operations to larger service delivery areas with fewer resources than those in large cities.

To meet these challenges, suburban civic and community organizations are increasingly adopting flexible structures to meet the needs of vulnerable residents. In Aurora, a cadre of nonprofits and volunteers are leveraging mobile and distributed social services to connect marginalized members of the community to resources, overcoming the challenges of self-directed development by creating new kinds of “ public spaces” specifically designed to meet the service delivery needs of an increasingly diverse population.

Meet previously detained immigrants where they are

Due to immigration detention policy changes during COVID-19 and successful appeals from local activists, the number of people released from the ICE detention center in Aurora rose from two per week up to over 100. This puts new pressure on local nonprofits, as detained immigrants, many of whom have faced human rights abuse within the ICE establishment— face significant challenges upon release, including difficulty accessing services, locating friends and family, and navigating the vast suburb.

“Aurora appears to be a normal-sized town, but for someone leaving a super small town in a remote location, it would feel like Aurora is gigantic,” said Sarah Jackson, director of the local goal association. non-profit. Casa de Paz. “For the people we see leaving ICE, I would say the most common feeling is ‘overwhelmed’.”

Casa de Paz was founded in 2012 as a home where recently released immigrants could find respite for several nights before reuniting with their families and accessing other services. Yet many immigrants – who often walk out of the ICE detention center without enough winter clothing or even shoelaces– fell through the cracks. So Casa de Paz started a mobile reception center, House on wheels, which parks at the gates of the detention center to assist those released. Casa on Wheels is a comfortably furnished van stocked with clothes, shoes, food, and volunteers who warmly welcome asylum seekers and direct them to the association’s house a few blocks away.

Although centralized services are essential, many of the most vulnerable asylum seekers avoid them during fear of being apprehended again or due to transportation issues. Instead of permanent pathways to citizenship that can better integrate undocumented immigrants in areas like Aurora, social services must adapt to deal with the realities of an aging and changing suburban landscape. For now, the dispersal of social services makes sense for suburban social service delivery.

Serving refugees through mobile and satellite offerings

For the most 1,600 refugees in Aurora, the challenge of finding and connecting to services in a sprawling car-free landscape can produce feelings of isolation and withdrawal. “Refugees are being resettled in areas that are poorly served by public transport and, due to a myriad of factors including cost and the effects of isolation, are often unable to get to services,” said Erika. Bodor, executive director of the Aurora-based nonprofit. Project Worthmore.

Project Worthmore began in 2011 as a grassroots effort to address the lack of services for refugees in Aurora, and has just opened its first community center, The Roots, on the iconic Colfax Avenue. But in many suburbs, no hub can be easily accessible to everyone. Bodor described how the physical design of the suburbs is difficult for recently arrived refugees, saying “what Aurora needs are many more decentralized community centers and public spaces” that can be accessed by newly arrived residents.

To address access issues, Project Worthmore began offering mobile and satellite services, including: a food sharing program that provides 160 parcels of fresh food from their community farm to refugee families throughout the metro area from Denver; a community navigation program where staff and volunteers conduct home visits to provide refugee families with essential services; and a dental clinic that offers screenings in apartment complexes where the majority of refugee communities are resettled.

But as Bodor points out, refugees need much more assistance than essential services: “[They] need more time and community support to navigate. And they don’t just need jobs, they need careers. Permanent affordable housing, ideally in walkable and transit-oriented developments that provide better access to jobs and services, is essential to this vision of more inclusive suburbs.

Meeting the challenges of peri-urban design

Aurora’s diversified growth shows no signs of slowing down, with approximately 2,000 Afghan refugees soon arrived in Colorado. Many will be resettled and find homes in apartment complexes in the sprawling neighborhoods of Aurora.

With this influx, there will be a greater need for responsive social services to reach new residents as they navigate the realities of suburban life. While expanding mobile offerings are essential, going forward, suburbs need to invest in infrastructure, economic development, and the creation of spaces that create real communities for new and returning residents.

Aurora is taking steps in this direction, including increasing its connectivity and affordability with a new light rail line and equity analysis. The city should expand these efforts, with the goal of creating an inclusive place for refugees, immigrants and others looking to find a permanent and welcoming home.

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