Colorado Springs News, Sports & Business

Volunteers learn about homelessness, person-by-person

BARBARA COTTER Updated: January 24, 2012 at 12:00 am

Sgt. Samuel Drennan admits he rarely gave homeless people much thought, and when he did, he had only one observation.

“I just thought they didn’t want to work,” the Georgia native said.

But after spending a few hours talking to people streaming into the Marian House Soup Kitchen on Tuesday, the Fort Carson soldier gained new insight into the complexities of homelessness.

“There’s a lot of things that go into it,” Drennan said. “And a lot of people are trying to get work and get out of it.”

Drennan was one of about 80 volunteers helping Pikes Peak United Way conduct its Homeless Point in Time Survey, an annual attempt to gauge the size and needs of the area’s homeless population. The information becomes key in determining how much federal money the area receives to help homeless people.

“We got $600,000 in 2003,” said Anne Beer, a Pikes Peak United Way employee who spearheaded the survey. “We’re at $1.9 million now because of better accounting.”

Counting the homeless population can be challenging. Some people stay well out of sight, preferring solitude to society. Some refuse to answer the survey because they feel it’s an invasion of their privacy. Beer and others involved in the survey know the count will under-represent the actual homeless population.

But in the nine or so years they’ve been doing the survey, they’ve gotten better at figuring out how to reach more people. Surveyors fan out to the places where the homeless population tends to congregate: the soup kitchen, Ecumenical Social Ministries, Westside Cares, TriLakes Cares, Northern Churches Care and the Salvation Army meal wagon, among others. Armed with clipboards and a survey, they ask people for more than 30 pieces of demographic information, including the all-important “where did you sleep last night?”

Much of the work is done by volunteers, but this year’s group was different. Not only was it about 50 percent bigger than last year’s, but it included a cast of characters who had never been involved. Fort Carson participated for the first time, sending 14 volunteers, including Drennan. Beer hoped they would be able to coax more homeless veterans into participating.

“The VA estimates there are about 400 homeless vets (in the Colorado Springs area). Last year, we only accounted for 180, so we hope to do a better job this time,” Beer said.

Also joining the effort were two workers from the governor’s office, and Rick Garcia, director of the regional U.S. Housing and Urban Development office in Denver.

“It’s very sobering to engage people who have been homeless for a long period of time,” said Garcia, who was participating in his first homeless survey.

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