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Collins' answer to homelessness: Ship them out and 'make them work'

June 25, 2014 Updated: June 25, 2014 at 8:28 pm
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Helen Collins has a unique approach to helping homeless people in Colorado Springs: Give them a bus ticket out of town and "make them work."

The Colorado Springs councilwoman spoke up Tuesday against the city's 2014 Action Plan for housing and homeless programs - sparking a brief exchange with councilwoman Jill Gaebler and prompting two audience members to also voice their opinions.

The exchange began when Collins, who represents District 4, offered her take on homelessness and the action plan.

"A lot of the homeless, the best way to get rid of the homeless is to give them a bus ticket back to their families," Collins said. "This isn't even taken into consideration. It's like the taxpayer has to fund the homeless for housing.

"They go into a low-income housing area," Collins continued, referencing her district on the southeast side of Colorado Springs. "They drag it down and then they move on to the next new low-income housing facility.

"I just don't think that's right for the taxpayer."

She added that the best way to help homeless individuals is to "make them work," because she feels federally funded affordable-housing programs enable homeless people to live off taxpayer dollars.

"You talk about jobs, that's all I hear," Collins said. "Federal, state, city - we need jobs, jobs, jobs."

Her views drew a quick response from Gaebler, who said studies have shown that the most effective way to help homeless individuals is to give them a place to live.

Many of the city's homeless people are veterans, she said, and homeless people often suffer from mental illness.

"Just to give them a home is the first step," Gaebler said. "It's called Housing First. Helping them to figure out what's going on in their lives, addressing their mental illness, and assessing what they can do to begin their healthy lives."

Collins countered that homelessness boils down to a failure of families to take care of their relatives.

She ended by taking aim at Gaebler's mention of homeless veterans.

"I'm a retired veteran - maybe I should get some affordable housing," Collins said.

Before the council voted on the matter, two people in the audience spoke up in an apparent response to Collins' remarks. One of them was Lindsay Deen, who identified herself as homeless.

"A lot these people have jobs, make money, but still cannot afford a place to live," Deen said.

Alexander Horwitz, a nonprofit's spokesman in New York who saw Collins' comments on the Internet Wednesday, voiced concern with the concept of relocating homeless people.

"Casting them out is not the solution," said Horwitz, whose organization, The Doe Fund, helps homeless men by giving them a place to live while offering job training.

Offering bus tickets to homeless individuals seeking a trip back home is nothing new in Colorado Springs. Ecumenical Social Ministries, for example, set aside $4,000 this year for tickets, though demand far outpaces their budget, said Carolyn McDole, the nonprofit's executive director.

Four to five people call her office a week seeking money for a ticket, with about a quarter of those calls being referrals from the Colorado Springs Police Department's Homeless Outreach Team, McDole said. The nonprofit only pays for half of the ticket, and most recipients must have a job waiting for them at their destination. Still, having a job does little if homeless people do not have housing, she said.

"If we can get someone that's homeless a job and then get them affordable housing, kind of hand in hand, there is more potential for success that somebody can actually work their way out of homelessness," McDole said.

The action plan - which detailed how the city expects to spend millions of dollars in federal grant money on affordable housing and homeless shelter initiatives - passed with the approval of six council members.

Joel Miller joined Collinsand Andy Pico in voting against the proposal, though Miller's concerns centered more around the plan's use of "economic opportunity zones," which he felt pulled assistance from those who need it most.

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