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Home / Articles / News / News /  Boulder County's Homeless
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Thursday, January 20,2011

Boulder County's Homeless

They’re not necessarily who you think they are

By Jefferson Dodge
When most of us think of the homeless, we picture the bearded, scroungy old man on the corner, holding a hand-scrawled message on cardboard.

 

Sitting in our nice warm car, we probably avoid eye contact, thinking he’s probably just some guy who took the bus from Denver or somewhere else in hopes of making some cash from rich Boulder types. He’ll probably just spend it on booze, anyway, we say to ourselves.

McDonald’s is surely hiring, so he could get a job if he wanted to, we think. Then the red light turns green, and we drive on, quickly forgetting the man and going on with our harried lives.

But the stereotype isn’t entirely accurate. Local experts say most of Boulder County’s homeless are not standing on the street corners. They are not visible to most of us. Many of them are families and young people, and they live here, not just in Denver.

By some accounts, there are now about 900 homeless students in the Boulder Valley School District.

According to the “Point-in-Time Homeless Count,” last conducted in 2009, almost 27 percent of the homeless in the Denver metro area were children under the age of 18. The 2007 survey put the number of homeless people living in Boulder County at about 1,200, and 82 percent of those said they had been living in the community before they lost their housing.

Local experts say those numbers have likely increased, given the state of the economy and the loss of low-wage jobs over the past few years.

This week, on Jan. 24-25, in an effort to update those figures and learn more about this invisible population, a team of Boulder County volunteers will be among those conducting the biennial point-in-time survey of homeless in the Denver metro area.

* * * * 

Several weeks ago, a teacher arrived at Erie High School to find a girl sleeping outside on the steps.

It was cold. The girl was homeless. So the teacher called a local organization called Attention Homes, which offers shelter, food and other services to homeless youth. The girl stayed at one of Attention Homes’ facilities for six days, then moved on to a friend’s house.

Jim Rianoshek, executive director of Attention Homes, says stories like this one are not unusual. He says that on any given day, there are about 200 homeless kids on the street in Boulder County. Nationally, about 20 percent of children run away from home before the age of 18, and 30 percent of those will be recruited for sexual exploitation or other types of human trafficking within 48 hours of leaving home.

Most local residents don’t think Boulder County has a homeless problem, Rianoshek says, but the facts speak for themselves.

Attention Homes was founded in 1966 in an effort to provide kids with “attention, not detention,” he explains. The organization is expanding to meet the growing need caused by the economic downturn and cuts to Boulder County’s housing and human services department. Attention Homes recently merged its substance abuse and residential facilities, then opened a drop-in shelter in October. Last month, it added a new emergency shelter.

According to Dougal Neralich, runaway and homeless youth program manager for Attention Homes, the organization’s facilities offer three tiers of service. The residential facility provides intensive care and shelter, in close coordination with social services, in cases where youth are having serious problems. The emergency shelter allows runaways and homeless youth to stay up to 60 days, but they must provide their name and date of birth, and their parents are contacted. The drop-in shelter is open just during the day and allows kids to remain anonymous and stop in to do their laundry or get a meal, a shower or clothing.

Attention Homes has an active outreach program in which staff like Neralich hit the streets looking for homeless kids, striking up conversations, building relationships, handing out brochures and trying to get them to come in for basic medical services or just some socks, water, maybe a tarp. Rianoshek says homeless kids’ top needs are food, washing their clothes and communication (including Internet service).

Attention Homes is in need, as well. The organization receives some funding from foundations, but officials say their reliance on private donations will likely increase by about 70 percent in the next year. They also need more volunteers.

* * * *

Chris Mitchell was one of the homeless when he came to Boulder four years ago. Now he feeds and clothes them.

He arrived from South Carolina by chance — he was hitchhiking, and when his ride stopped in Boulder, he stayed.

“I didn’t pick Boulder, Boulder picked me,” he says. “This is where I ended up. I tried to leave a couple of times, and it pulled me back.” Mitchell didn’t stay homeless for long; he got a place in Rollinsville and a job as a cook in Nederland, then moved to Wondervu, where he worked as a dishwasher at the Wondervu Café. After moving to Boulder about a year ago, he began volunteering at the Carriage House, which provides food, clothes and services to the homeless. Then he started working with an emergency warming center created by local churches and the Carriage House, and things just grew from there.

Today, he is manager of operations for Boulder Outreach for Homeless Overflow (BOHO), an organization that gives meals and shelter to the homeless at six local churches when it is especially cold and the Boulder Homeless Shelter is full.

The shelter has 130 beds for walkins, plus 30 more that are reserved for a fee, but those aren’t enough, especially in the winter. BOHO typically housed about 33 people a night last winter, and is averaging 55 people this winter. Mitchell expects that number to double soon.

“I’m expecting 100 to 110 by February,” he says. “We’ll be close to matching the shelter’s numbers. … We had zero fatalities last winter because of the warming centers.”

He bases the decision on whether to open the church shelters on the weather conditions. The shelters are available from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. when the temperature dips to 32 degrees or lower, or when there is precipitation and it’s 38 degrees or colder.

“I kind of have to be a weatherman,” Mitchell says with a laugh.

BOHO serves breakfast and dinner, and hands out everything from socks and coats to backpacks and books. The books are checked out on an honor system.

“That shows them we trust them,” he says. “It’s all about building people up.”

Both Mitchell and Neralich agree that they are seeing more homeless families because of the economy, many of whom live out of their cars after losing their houses.

“Families would choose to stay together, even if it’s on the street,” Neralich says.

Mitchell adds, “When you get to that point, your family is all you have.”

He says the common stereotype of the homeless is not always accurate. While a significant number have had substance abuse problems in the past, many are now clean.

“Everyone thinks all homeless people are drunk or a drug addict, and they’re not,” Mitchell says.

* * * *

Joy Eckstine, executive director of the Carriage House, says the image of the dirty, alcoholic, middle-aged white guy represents only 10 percent or 20 percent of the homeless population.

“That’s the tip of the iceberg,” she says. “That’s the part of the iceberg you see.”

About 60 percent represent local families, according to Eckstine, and most of that group is composed of women and children, many of whom have been victims of domestic violence. She adds that there are a host of contributing factors to homelessness aside from addiction issues, including mental illness, abuse, job loss, personal vulnerabilities and other socioeconomic factors.

One of the biggest misperceptions, she says, is that the homeless in Boulder County aren’t from here. She points to a Carriage House survey of homeless people in which 50 percent of respondents said their last place of residence was in Boulder County. The idea that most homeless people take a bus here from Denver or elsewhere is simply misleading, Eckstine says, noting that it is costly for a homeless person to travel by bus between Boulder and Denver.

Contrary to the myth that homeless people can make a pretty penny by begging, the Carriage House survey of its clients found that the average monthly income among homeless was $219.

“No one’s getting rich on disability,” Eckstine says.

On the other hand, she explains, the perception that most homeless people begging on the street corner are going to use the money to buy booze is probably pretty accurate.

If you want to give them something, Eckstine says, keep some granola bars or other items in your car to hand out at the intersection. If they are grateful, they probably weren’t going to use the money for booze.

“You can tell a lot by someone’s reaction when you give a granola bar,” she says.

In addition, the Carriage House sells vouchers that can be given away to the homeless and redeemed for goods and services at many local vendors — and they can’t be used to buy alcohol or tobacco.

She also encourages people to make eye contact with homeless people they encounter, and to smile at them, because they feel ashamed, and it means a lot to simply be acknowledged. She says her homeless clients beam when they tell her that someone spoke to them.

“Homeless people are despised, loathed and hated,” Eckstine says. “We use language to describe homeless people that we wouldn’t use to describe another race. … We fear that which is ‘different’ and ‘other.’” The Carriage House is a day shelter and resource center that also runs the “Community Table,” a nightly meal at downtown churches. Breakfast and lunch is served on weekdays at its 1120 ½ Pine St. facility, which also houses a computer lab, clothing and other supplies for the homeless. The Carriage House serves more than 3,000 different clients a year, distributing basic supplies like toiletry items as well as offering an array of services, from medical care to an art group to addiction recovery to job counseling.

Getting a job can be difficult, Eckstine says, since employers are wary of hiring a homeless person. So the Carriage House has a collection of nice clothing that can be borrowed for job interviews and a voicemail program that lets homeless clients have their own personalized message when prospective employers call. These things help put them on an equal footing with others when job-hunting, she explains.

According to Eckstine, the Carriage House saw a 16 percent increase in the number of people it served in 2009.

On the other hand, Homeless Outreach Providing Encouragement (HOPE), an outreach organization based in Longmont, saw its caseload double between 2008 and 2009.

* * * *

HOPE Executive Director Bray Patrick-Lake was serving as a Longmont police officer when she saw firsthand the need for an organization like the one she now leads.

“I used to work the graveyard shift,” she says. “That’s where I saw the need. I would see a lot of the same people, and realized they were not getting the resources they needed.”

HOPE was formed in 2007 after a winter in which five homeless people in the county died from exposure to the elements.

“We felt like, for our county, that was completely unacceptable,” Patrick- Lake recalls.

Now, her organization uses a network of 250 volunteers who work in shifts to distribute basic supplies (and food prepared by the group’s “Soup Angels”) to Longmont’s homeless between 5:30 and 10 p.m. Their truck hits the roads seven nights a week in the winter and six in the summer. Patrick-Lake says the team truck has a regular stop at the city’s police complex at 225 Kimbark St., then spends the rest of its shift driving the streets in search of people in need. The team also works closely with police, providing them with backpacks stocked with supplies to hand out during HOPE’s offhours and taking intoxicated homeless people to the hospital for detox when necessary.

HOPE is funded primarily through foundation grants and donations from individuals and groups; only about 10 percent of its revenue comes from city and county sources.

Another Longmont organization, the Outreach United Resource (OUR) Center, has been helping the homeless — primarily families with children — move toward self-sufficiency since 1986. The OUR Center provides emergency food, transportation, utilities, furniture, minor medical prescriptions, referrals for emergency shelter and homeless-prevention help, including rent and utility assistance.

* * * *

An increase in homeless numbers is likely to be reflected in the “point-in-time” count being conducted this week not just because there are more unemployed due to the economy, but because it is expected to be a more thorough count: This year the county has assigned two employees to work on it instead of one.

Agatha Moya, who has worked at the OUR Center, is coordinating the count in Longmont, which has the county’s highest percentage of homeless people. Leslie Gibson is handling the rest of the county. They say they have been working closely with police and the above-mentioned agencies in recent months to identify areas where homeless people congregate. They are dividing up those areas among the volunteers who will be administering the surveys in two-hour shifts over the 24-hour period.

Gibson and Moya have also enlisted the help of the homeless organizations and dozens of other groups to distribute point-in-time surveys to their clients. They are also working with local school districts.

The data will be used by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to determine the allocation of funding for transitional housing, shelter care and permanent housing for homeless in Colorado.

Moya says the Hispanic homeless community has likely been under-represented in past counts, so she has brought in more Spanish-speaking volunteers. All volunteers undergo training on things like how to approach homeless people without alienating them.

“It’s a very sensitive and delicate issue,” Moya says. “They’re very suspicious. They ask, ‘What are you going to do with this information?’” As an incentive to complete the survey, respondents will receive a kit with basic necessities like toiletry items.

The anonymous survey includes questions about where people spent the previous night, what prompted their current situation and demographics like age and race/ethnicity.

Gibson says surveys will be completed only by those who identify themselves as homeless. She explained that some people don’t think they are homeless — they view their car or a spot near the creek as their home.

Echoing the county’s other advocates, Gibson stresses that while substance abuse is among the many factors that commonly contribute to homelessness, these people are not all drunks.

But some are. She says one told her that he didn’t become homeless because of alcohol.

He said he started drinking to forget his current situation. For more information about the pointin-time survey, visit the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative’s website at mdhi.org.

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com

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