Colorado Springs News, Sports & Business

FEMA checks went to homeless Colorado Springs campers

By Cary Vogrin, cary.vogrin@gazette.com - Updated: April 18, 2014 at 7:38 am

A federal agency sent at least 69 checks totaling thousands of dollars to homeless people in Colorado Springs who claimed their camps were decimated in last summer's floods.

The numbers were obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request submitted by The Gazette, which reported in November that checks from FEMA ranging from $1,200 to $2,800 were mailed to homeless people who used local service agencies as their mailing address. At least one agency - Westside Cares - says it changed its procedures because of its role in how the checks were obtained.

Of the 69 Individual Assistance checks sent by FEMA:

- 31 went to 14 W. Bijou St., the address of the Marian House Soup Kitchen;

- 30 were distributed through Westside Cares, at 28th Street and West Colorado Avenue; and

- Eight went to the Springs Rescue Mission at 5 W. Las Vegas St.

While the agency provided the number of checks sent, it did not provide a total dollar amount.

Several homeless people said the process to receive checks was relatively easy: They asked the local social service agencies to write letters - a few sentences - vouching for their living situations. The homeless applicants also supplied FEMA with their Social Security numbers, an address and a telephone number. The initial registration process - done online, over the phone or in person at a disaster recovery center - took about 15 minutes, a FEMA spokeswoman said at the time.

Steve Brown, executive director of Westside Cares, which assists the working poor and homeless, said the agency will not provide such letters anymore.

"We were indeed called by FEMA; they said stop writing those letters, and we did, immediately," Brown said. "What we were doing is taking people's word for it. That's our organizational culture," Brown said in explaining why the agency initially provided letters used for FEMA documentation.

"Those folks who got the checks found a way through the rules."

FEMA policy does not allow such funds to go to people deemed "pre-disaster homeless," agency officials said. But it does allow for people in nontraditional housing, such as tents, to receive disaster funds.

The head of Catholic Charities of Central Colorado, which operates the downtown soup kitchen and typically provides a mailing address for 200 to 250 people at any given time, said he is not aware of calls from FEMA after The Gazette's report.

"We, in writing the letter, were sharing what we believed to be true about the living situation about the folks we've been helping," said CEO Mark Rohlena. "We weren't making statements about the value of personal loss in providing the letters."

Rohlena added that it is FEMA's responsibility to assess what was lost in the flooding.

Among those who told The Gazette last fall that they received emergency funds were:

-A man who said he was staying along the banks of Fountain Creek off 25th Street on the city's west side when flooding occurred. He admitted being stunned by the $2,800 he received.

- A man who said his tents in Pike National Forest were decimated by heavy rains. 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.

- Three men who camped on the city's west side near Ridge Road and split a $2,700 check that one of them received.

One woman who received $1,200 but did not want to be identified out of concerns for her safety said Thursday that although she knows people who used the FEMA funds to party, the money helped her get off the streets during the coldest part of the year. She stayed in a hotel nearly two months after flooding in Bear Creek Regional Park destroyed her belongings, she said.

"I would have never made it - never survived the winter out there," said the woman, who is again living in her vehicle.

Brown said he doesn't know of anyone whose life situation changed because of the money, citing one man who he has seen passed out on a bus stop near his agency.

"Does it help? It has the potential to help; whether it really helped or not is an open question," Brown said. "Those checks were not enough to change somebody's life.

"I'm not aware of anybody that it did help, and I know a number of people who got those checks and they're still in the same lifestyle," he added. "I can think of at least a half-dozen off the top of my head whose lives have not been materially changed."

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