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How Aurora, Colorado Is Addressing The Issues Of Suburban Social Service Delivery Via Movable ‘public Spaces.’

The situation occurring in Aurora, Colo., where an overcrowded Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center operates in one of the state’s most immigrant-friendly cities, is probably the best parallel for the clash of realities at play in America’s diversifying suburbs.

Aurora, located east of Denver, is a vast and diversified suburb. Twenty percent of the population is foreign-born, with many of them being refugees who speak over 160 languages. Aurora’s racial, cultural, and socioeconomic diversity reflects the present and future of American suburbs, which have witnessed a considerable increase in inhabitants of color—as well as the nation’s fastest-growing poverty rates—over the last two decades.

Despite expanding suburban poverty across the country, social services have not kept pace with residents’ needs, and organizations in the suburbs are frequently forced to spread their operations across greater service delivery regions with fewer resources than those in major cities.

To fulfill the requirements of vulnerable individuals, suburban civic and community organizations are increasingly adopting flexible structures to handle these issues. In Aurora, a group of nonprofits and volunteers is using mobile and distributed social services to connect marginalized community members to resources, overcoming the challenges of auto-oriented development by creating new types of “public spaces” that are specifically designed to meet the service delivery needs of a growing population.


The number of detainees released from Aurora’s ICE detention center has grown from two per week to upwards of 100, thanks to changes in immigration detention policy during COVID-19 and successful calls from local activists. This is putting a new pressure on local organizations, as detained immigrants—many of whom were subjected to human rights violations while held by ICE—face substantial problems following release, such as difficulty obtaining assistance, identifying friends and family, and navigating a huge suburb.

“Aurora appears to be a regular-sized city, but it would appear to be massive to someone leaving an extremely small village in a remote location,” said Sarah Jackson, head of the local group Casa de Paz. “I’d say the most common feeling among the people we see exiting ICE is ‘overwhelmed.'”

Casa de Paz was established in 2012 as a safe haven for freshly released immigrants to stay for a few nights before reuniting with their families and seeking additional help. Many immigrants, however, who frequently left ICE detention centers without adequate winter clothes or even shoelaces, slipped through the cracks. As a result, Casa de Paz established Casa on Wheels, a mobile welcoming center that parks at the detention center’s gates to help individuals being released. Casa on Wheels is a warmly decorated van with clothing, shoes, food, and volunteers who greet asylum seekers and direct them to the nonprofit’s house, which is only a few blocks away.

Despite the need of centralized services, many of the most vulnerable asylum seekers avoid them for fear of being re-arrested or owing to transportation issues. In the absence of permanent avenues to citizenship that would allow undocumented immigrants in Aurora to better integrate, social services must adjust to the realities of an aging—and changing—suburban setting. For the time being, delivering social services in the suburbs makes sense.


The difficulty of accessing and connecting to services in a large terrain without a car can lead to feelings of loneliness and retreat among Aurora’s approximately 1,600 refugees. “Refugees are relocated in regions that are ineffectively served by public transit, and they are often unable to go to services owing to a variety of factors—including expense and the effects of isolation,” said Erika Bodor, managing director of the Aurora-based organization Project Worthmore.

Project Worthmore began as a grassroots movement in 2011 to address the shortage of services for refugees in Aurora, and they have recently constructed their first community hub, The Roots, on Colfax Avenue. However, in many suburbs, no single center is likely to be widely accessible to everyone. Bodor explained how the physical form of suburbia makes it difficult for newly arriving immigrants to adjust, suggesting that “what’s needed in Aurora are many more decentralized community hubs and public places” that are accessible to newcomers.

Project Worthmore began offering mobile and satellite services to address access issues, including a food-sharing program that delivers 160 packages of fresh food from their community farm to refugee families throughout the Denver metro area; a community navigation program in which staff and volunteers conduct home visits to provide refugee families with essential services; and a dental clinic that provides screenings at apartment complexes where the majority of refugees live.

However, as Bodor points out, refugees require considerably more help than just basic services: “[They] require more time and community support to find their bearings.” And they require more than simply employment; they require careers.” Permanent affordable housing, ideally in walkable and transit-oriented projects that allow easier access to jobs and services, is critical to this vision of more inclusive suburbs.


Aurora’s diversified expansion isn’t slowing down, with an estimated 2,000 Afghan refugees expected to arrive in Colorado soon. Many will be rehoused in apartment complexes located throughout Aurora’s extensive neighborhoods.

With this migration, there will be a larger need for adaptable social services to serve new residents as they adjust to suburban life’s challenges. While extending mobile capabilities is critical, suburbs must also invest in infrastructure, economic development, and placemaking to create true communities for new and returning inhabitants.

Aurora is taking moves in this approach, including a new light-rail route and an equity analysis, to improve connectivity and affordability. The city should build on these efforts in order to create an inclusive environment for refugees, immigrants, and those seeking a permanent and welcoming home.

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