Forum shows no easy answers to Colorado Springs homeless problem

May 9, 2013 Updated: May 9, 2013 at 10:15 pm
photo - A panel discussion on Community Conversations: The Homeless Divide was held at Colorado College on Thursday, May 9, 2013. Mike Mortley asks a question during the discussion. (Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette)
A panel discussion on Community Conversations: The Homeless Divide was held at Colorado College on Thursday, May 9, 2013. Mike Mortley asks a question during the discussion. (Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette) 

No one on a panel of homeless service providers pretended to have all the answers to helping people get off the streets of Colorado Springs.

But at a forum to discuss homelessness Thursday, they agreed on one thing: It's a complex problem that will take a strong community effort, expanded resources and a lot of patience to address.

The forum, sponsored by The Gazette and Colorado College, touched on gaps in services and resources that are all too familiar to the professionals who work with the homeless as well as homeless people themselves, including a shortage of mental health services, outreach workers and emergency shelters for families, and the absence of a day center.

'I think the main problem that we are facing ... is a lack of proper mental health services, ' said panelist Bob Holmes, executive director of Homeward Pikes Peak, which coordinates homeless services in the area and runs four housing and treatment programs. 'I think AspenPointe does a good job, but they're constrained by funding. We desperately need more funding for mental health services. '

Richard Peitzman, who was homeless off and on for more than 20 years and now works for the Set Free Biker's Church ministry, said mental health issues in the homeless population seem worse in the Colorado Springs area than in any of the other places he's worked, including San Diego.

He also said he's seen many more families becoming homeless in Colorado Springs, but there are few emergency shelter options for them.

'There are always facilities for men, ' he said. 'Facilities for women are few and far between, and facilities for families are almost nonexistent. '

It was a point underscored earlier Thursday in an interview with Anne Beer of Pikes Peak United Way as she released the latest statistics on homelessness in El Paso County. Although there are enough emergency beds in the area to shelter most of the homeless population, they aren't set up for families.

'We don't need more beds; we need to rearrange what we have, ' Beer said.

One issue the forum was set up to address is the impact of the chronic homeless population on downtown businesses. Former City Councilman Richard Skorman, owner of the Poor Richard's restaurant, bookstore and toy store complex on North Tejon Street, said no one can say for sure whether a business lives or dies because it's in the same area where people who are homeless, panhandling or having mental problems hang out. But he believes the population plays a role in an area that is trying to be business-friendly.

'Turnover in downtown has been tremendous in the years that I've been here, and this is a factor, ' Skorman said.

Women, in particular, seem more afraid of people who are homeless and/or panhandling, and while he doesn't believe they are doing anything criminal, he understands the perception.

'There are sometimes people with mental problems that go berserk, and that is scary, and it can happen anywhere - it doesn't have to be downtown. '

But with the homeless service organizations concentrated downtown, he said, that's where the homeless people will congregate.

Holmes, however, said he thinks people who are homeless come downtown for the same reasons other people do.

'It's a great place to be, ' Holmes said. 'I can't see blaming any agency for drawing people downtown. '

As audience members took the microphone, several recommended that more of an effort be made to bring homeless people into the decision-making process and onto the boards of nonprofits that work with them.

'I think it's a good idea, ' Skorman said to applause.

The forum on homelessness was the first of a series of quarterly community conversations that CC and The Gazette will host to discuss issues affecting Colorado Springs and the Pikes Peak region.

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