Updated: November 17, 2013 at 5:38 pm
Thousands of dollars in federal emergency funds have been handed out to homeless people in Colorado Springs who claim their camps were swept away during violent flooding in September, a Gazette investigation has confirmed.
Checks from FEMA of up to $2,800 have been sent to homeless people, including some who used local service agencies such as the Marian House soup kitchen or Westside Cares as their mailing address.
While Federal Emergency Management Agency policy does not allow the funds to go to people deemed "pre-disaster homeless," it permits payments to those in "non-traditional housing," officials said.
FEMA authorities were unable to say how many such people received assistance, but the Gazette learned of several who got checks.
- A 61-year-old who says he was staying along the banks of Fountain Creek off Naegele Road and 25th Street on the city's west side when flooding occurred;
- A 42-year-old who says his tents in Pike National Forest were decimated by heavy rains;
- A trio of men who showed up at a Safeway customer service desk with a $2,700 government-issued check labeled "FEMA" in the bottom left corner. "They brought it to the register," recalled Robbie Dukes, a security officer at the west side store who is familiar with the men and saw the check. "They wanted to cash it. It was too big. I was mind-boggled by it."
The paydays are both stunning and disappointing to some who work with the region's homeless, including the head of Westside Cares, who said the issue wasn't on his radar until the mail came one day and a man opened a check in front of him. Westside Cares said up to a dozen checks have been mailed to its offices.
"I've got some of the most compassionate people on staff, and no one is happy with this," said Steve Brown, executive director of Westside Cares, an agency on West Colorado Avenue that assists the working poor and homeless. "This is my opinion - this is not an effective use of money. It also goes nowhere to solving the longer-term issue that put them on the creek in the first place."
Brown also is somewhat conflicted about his agency's role in how funds were obtained. Several homeless people told The Gazette they asked local social service agencies to write simple letters - just a few sentences - vouching for their living situations.
The head of Catholic Charities of Colorado Springs, which operates the downtown soup kitchen and typically provides a mailing address for 200-250 people at any given time, also confirmed the agency provided letters.
"Any information we did provide at the client's request really would have included basic information on the fact that we were serving them or some of the types of services received, as well as where they were living if we knew that information," said CEO Mark Rohlena. "We made no attempt to try to value personal possessions or losses due to flooding. To us, it's not much different than a verification of employment."
Applicants also supplied FEMA with their social security numbers, address and a telephone number. The initial registration process - done online, over the phone or in person at a disaster recovery center - takes about 15 minutes, a FEMA spokeswoman said. FEMA inspectors then follow up in person to assess the situation.
"They were extremely nice; they were extremely human to you," said one 50-year-old woman who said a FEMA representative met her in the parking lot at the Springs Rescue Mission off South Nevada Avenue. "It was pretty simple, I must say."
Word of the FEMA money quickly spread among the homeless. "It was the talk of the soup line," one said.
The 61-year-old who says he lost everything to the rising and turbulent waters of Fountain Creek in mid-September's deluge admitted to being shocked by the amount he received.
"I'm like 'Wow! Oh man, I wasn't expecting that much. I know I need glasses, but am I looking at this right? I'm not going to squander it," said Robbie Levesque, who was sent $2,800.
Levesque, who said he has been homeless on and off for several years, received his check Nov. 6.
"I never had a better night's sleep. This is the most content I've felt in six years," he said a day after he received his check, as he and two friends sat in the warmth of a cramped motel room on Manitou Avenue drinking and watching TV. "I've got money in the bank."
FEMA assistance became available when FEMA awarded El Paso and 10 other Colorado counties "Individual Assistance" status after heavy rains inundated much of the Front Range nearly two months ago.
As of Wednesday, $52.7 million in Individual Assistance grants were given to more than 15,000 Colorado households, according to FEMA. Of that, nearly $1.5 million went to people in El Paso County.
When questioned by The Gazette about some of the payouts, FEMA officials said they are simply following policy.
Agency guidelines allow money to go to people in "non-traditional housing" who are impacted by a disaster - including those living in tents or teepees, said Scott Chamberlain, who heads FEMA's Individual Assistance program for the Colorado floods. Such people could qualify for rental assistance for up to two months.
FEMA officials said while it may not be common in Colorado, there are other areas of the country where such "non-traditional" living conditions are more the norm, such as on an Indian Reservation or a U.S. island territory.
"Some people live in lean-tos. That's their structure. It does not make them homeless - it is just how their living condition is, how they want to live," Chamberlain said.
Added FEMA spokesman Ed Conley: "I guess it's all how you define a home. Because we can consider non-traditional housing, we have some flexibility to help get people back on their feet who otherwise would have to rely solely on voluntary resources or the local government."
FEMA policy does not, however, allow for funds to go to people termed "pre-disaster homeless" - those who lived in a shelter or literally on the streets or in a doorway at the time of a flood or other catastrophe.
"You're using your definition of homeless," Chamberlain said when told of several situations in which homeless people in Colorado Springs received money. "We consider a tent non-traditional housing, and I think you consider a tent homeless."
It's that definition that apparently led to a paycheck for some, although Chamberlain said the agency will investigate cases in which they believe fraud may have occurred and try to recoup the money.
Much of the money in question, though, is likely spent.
Randy Collins, 42, said he received $1,244 in rental assistance from FEMA and $661 to replace personal items after he asked an employee at the downtown soup kitchen to write a letter on his behalf.
"I said I need a letter saying I'm homeless and lived in the national forest," Collins recalled last week as he and his dog, Jake, were heading into America The Beautiful Park near downtown.
Collins' money went to a bike he bought at a thrift store, a bike trailer and warm coat he got at Wal-Mart, a pair of prescription glasses, a military sleeping bag he shares with Jake and a couple other items for his constant companion: 50 pounds of dog food and a new collar. He also sprang for a cell phone, which he uses to call his mom in California daily.
And he spent some of it on a few nights in a motel. None went to booze, he said. He's not a drinker.
"It's all gone," he said of the money. "I know if I had gotten a little more, I wouldn't be on the street. I'd get an apartment or a vehicle."
For now, he and Jake are sleeping in the bed of a friend's pickup.
Dan McCormack, a Colorado Springs police officer on the department's Homeless Outreach Team, knows of some camps that were wiped out by flooding. "If they're homeless and they actually did lose stuff, by all means if that was their way of surviving, it needs to be replaced," he said.
But he questions FEMA guidelines and the check amounts.
"I feel for them being on the street, but I think there's got to be a common sense factor, too," McCormack said. "The government should be responsible to the taxpayers on where it's spent and how it's being spent."
McCormack uses this analogy: "My whole opinion is if you had to make a claim on your homeowners insurance, they make you jump through hoops to prove what you had and the value of it. I think it's good intentions, but I don't know that it's done appropriately. If your house gets robbed and a Picasso is stolen, you are going to have prove you had that Picasso. "
Bob Holmes, director of Homeward Pikes Peak, which also works to get people off the streets and into housing, called what's happened "absurd."
"I don't begrudge these individuals assistance, but I think the government is derelict in being discerning how they mete out these funds. The way it is done is absurd," Holmes said. "Those of us who work with individuals with substance problems realize the first chunk of money will go to secure a warm space for them to hang out and the second chunk will go to alcohol and drugs.
"There's so much potential for government assistance to do good and positive things for individuals and then when something absurd like this happens, it tears down all the good programs that exist within the government," he added.
Brown, the head of Westside Cares, said the agency does not offer cash assistance directly to people. It sometimes provides rental assistance, which goes directly to the landlord.
"The reason we never put cash in hands is because cash or cash equivalents can be used for things that we wouldn't want them to be used for," he said.
"FEMA is clearly not doing their job. It creates a sense in the community that it's about cheating and scamming. This stuff that feels like abuse of a system irritates me."
The reaction of Rohlena, the Catholic Charities CEO, was more tempered:
"I don't know whether to be surprised or not. I would hope there would be due diligence. I don't know what FEMA did, but I hope it was something along the lines of investigating those losses."
Those who received funds say they deserve it as much as anyone else who suffered in the floods.
"I ain't no thief," Levesque said indignantly when asked about his money.
Levesque recalled returning to his camp on a rainy day in mid-September after shopping at Uintah Gardens: "I took the bus back. I got back there. 'Where's my tent? Where's my bike?'
"I had no sleeping bag, nothing. Just the clothes on my back."
He said he also lost two down sleeping bags, a backpack and mountaineering boots, among other belongings and slept outdoors for a few weeks with no cover. "We went to Safeway to freshen up in the morning," he said.
A friend told him about the FEMA aid, so he applied.
Soon after, a check came to his mailing address at Westside Cares. He recalls the advice he received there: "Don't blow it. Be smart about it."
"So I opened an account with Wells Fargo. I ain't going to Vegas, that's for damn sure, and I ain't going to Cripple Creek."
On Nov. 7, Levesque and two homeless friends were staying in a motel on Manitou Avenue, where they were paying $210 a week.
One of them, Christina Thompson, 55, was waiting to hear whether she would receive aid. The other, 55-year-old Steve Soete, already had money in his pocket from a FEMA check.
Soete said he and some other friends were farther west on Fountain Creek when the water rose. "We were right off Ridge Road," he said. "When the flood hit, it just killed everything." One of the friends applied for assistance, and when a check came for $2,700, it was split among the group. "We told them what we had lost," he said of the FEMA application process. "We weren't talking computers. For the most part, we were honest: sleeping bags and a cooler and an electric heater. We lost tents, we lost all kinds of stuff."
"We weren't expecting much," he said.
Levesque, who goes by "Red Rock Robbie," said he planned to use his FEMA money as a security deposit on a small cottage on the west side. He said his Social Security disability checks should cover rent once he has secured a place.
Thompson, who has been homeless for about four months and once owned the popular Los Robles Nursery until the business went bankrupt in 2000-2001, said she realizes there will be some criticism about homeless people getting FEMA funds.
"I think it could be honest criticism," she said. People are opportunistic, she said. Maybe lied about their situation. But she strongly feels her friends deserve and need the money - mostly because of the help she has received from them.
"The only thing I want to do is honor homeless people because they are the people who kept me safe," she said of her time living along Fountain Creek with Levesque and others.
Thompson said her situation on the creek was real, and she was truthful with FEMA. She said she was warned that if she was trying to scam the system "FEMA would bring the wrath of the federal government down on me."
"I really was there. I really lost all my stuff." she said Saturday from yet another motel room on West Colorado Avenue.
Levesque, a grandfather of two with a third on the way, said last week he hoped to have an apartment soon, and pointed to some cottages he was eyeing on West Colorado Avenue near Safeway.
"I want a stable home," he said. "We've got a chance."
Cary Vogrin is a long-time journalist who works part time at The Gazette and owns a business on Colorado Springs' west side.
EL PASO COUNTY
• Number of people who have applied for assistance in El Paso County as of Nov. 11: 1,243
• Total dollar amount of assistance provided in El Paso County as of Nov. 13: $1,481,353
• Number of people in El Paso County who received maximum FEMA grant allowed of $31,900: 0 Source: Federal Emergency Management Agency
FEMA FLOOD ASSISTANCE STATEWIDE
• Individual Assistance grants distributed statewide: $52.7 million
• Counties receiving most assistance:
1) Boulder: $30.2 million
2) Weld: $9.3 million
3) Larimer: $5.1 million
• Number of households statewide receiving the maximum FEMA grant of $31,900: 204 (None in El Paso County) Source: FEMA, as of Nov. 13
The deadline to register for flood disaster assistance is Nov. 30.
To register for assistance, call 1-800-621-FEMA (3362).
When registering, have the following available:
• Social Security number
• Telephone number where you can be reached
• Directions to damaged home or property and address
ZIP of damaged property
• Private insurance information, if available
Registration also can be done online at www.disaster assistance.gov