Colorado Springs News, Sports & Business

Gazette Premium Content Homelessness faces perception problem

By Barb Cotter Published: May 8, 2013

On Tuesday, shortly after noon, a scruffy gray-haired man named Earl leaned into a cluster of bushes in front of Penrose Library and vomited loudly. Having a breakfast of vodka will do that to a person.

'He shouldn't be drinking this freaking early, ' said the man's friend, Deanardo Epps.

As people turned their heads toward the retching sound, Epps recounted the man's story: He did stints in detox and went through alcohol-abuse programs. Nothing has worked. The man is an alcoholic, he's homeless, and as he literally spills his guts in a bed of shrubs, he unwittingly reinforces a stereotype of someone who is homeless - a bum who just wants to drink, loiter in the parks downtown, beg and live off the good graces of others.

The Earls of downtown have re-ignited a longstanding debate over what to do about the homeless people who hang out in an area that has been the focus of revitalization efforts for years. They're the ones who get the rap for sleeping in flower beds and doorways, urinating in public, trashing parks, panhandling and scaring away business.

But ask the people who work every day with homeless people, and they'll tell you to put things in perspective. Downtown is not a hotbed of criminal activity by the homeless, they say, and many of the downtown problems are caused by people who may look unkempt, but aren't homeless. Yet, homeless people get the blame.

'Most of the calls we get are not downtown, ' said M.J. Thomson, an officer with the Colorado Springs Police Department's three-person Homeless Outreach Team. 'I'm not saying the homeless don't create problems. They do. But everybody blames them for everything. They just assume. '

'Their crimes tend to be more nuisance-related: urinating in public, drunk in public, but not thefts or assaults, ' added one of Thomson's partners, Brett Iverson. 'The bars cause more problems. '

Perception, however, keeps the issue on the front burner, and gives credence to the argument that people who are homeless are driving away business. Sam Eppley, owner of Sparrow Hawk Gourmet Cookware and president of the Downtown Partnership board, said he realizes homelessness is an issue for any urban area, and isn't likely to disappear. Ever. He also knows the chronically homeless represent only a fraction of overall homelessness in the area, and are the most intractable when it comes to accepting offers of help.

Perhaps, the people who hang out near his store or at the library or nearby parks are harmless. But who knows?

'They are a deterrent simply by being on the street and in your face, ' he said. 'They are also the ones who keel over on the corner, passed out. They are the ones causing the city a tremendous amount in calls for service. It's a perception problem, especially for women. If you see someone like that, you don't know what to think: Are they legitimately in need, harmless, or are they going to hurt you? You just don't know.

'I can't stress enough that what you are seeing and having a problem with is a tiny group of the homeless population, but they are a problem. '

Epps, who is sober and three years meth-free, but unemployed and homeless, has felt the sting of stares and heard the snide comments. He's articulate and thoughtful, and tries to keep up with his hygiene. But he understands Eppley's concerns.

'The front of your business is a good percentage of your advertising and bringing people in, ' Epps said. 'If you look scary, it will make people think twice about coming in. I would probably feel the same way. '

Heart of the issue

Downtown isn't the only area of Colorado Springs trying to figure out the vexing issue of homelessness. The west side has had its share of problems, and some people have been camping north and south of downtown. But the bulk of homeless services are downtown, an area in the bull's-eye of revitalization efforts, so that's where people who are homeless tend to congregate.

One flashpoint in the debate is one of the city's primary service providers, the Marian House Soup Kitchen, operated by Catholic Charities of Central Colorado. It serves a free lunch to all comers, no-questions-asked, but officials estimate that only 30 percent of the clients are homeless. Mark Rohlena, president and CEO of Catholic Charities, has heard the complaints about the soup kitchen contributing to problems in the neighborhood, and being a magnet for sketchy denizens of downtown. He doesn't buy it. The Marian House is where it is, on Bijou Street just east of Interstate 25, because that's where the need was, he said.

'We still think many folks would be here even if the Marian House were not here, ' he said. 'People are downtown because there's a lot of public space. It's harder to be pushed from a park bench than from a private business. '

Still, Catholic Charities is aware of the power of perception, and it tries to be a good neighbor, he said. Staff does cleanups at Monument Valley Park across the street and works with the Boulder Crescent Neighborhood Association, whose members live north of Marian House. Rohlena has also started the Homeless Engagement and Response Team program - HEART - which enlists trained volunteers to reach out to homeless people along Tejon Street and other core areas of downtown, and educate business owners about resources.

'It's really to reach the chronic homeless, ' he said. 'The chronically homeless need contacts before changing, and that's only going to be improved by that personal, one-on-on relationship. '

Annie Collopy, a resident of the Boulder Crescent neighborhood and head of the neighborhood watch, appreciates the Catholic Charities' efforts, but she and her neighbors can't help noticing the activity at Monument Valley Park. She's seen people urinate and defecate in the open, not only in the park, but in neighbors' yards. She's found hypodermic needles and witnessed what appears to be drug deals. Nearby homes have been burglarized. Car campers park in a stretch of free spaces near their homes. And she's seen the tents pop up in the park as the sun goes down.

'I can't express enough; I know the parks are for everyone, and you can't tell one group they can't loiter, ' she said. 'It's very easy for me to sound like I have a not-in-my-backyard philosophy. I don't want to be a busybody. It's more about blatancy. What family will want to use this park if they see these things? '

Collopy realizes it may not be exclusively homeless people who cause problems, and she doesn't want to paint everyone with the same brush. 'I think we all use the term 'homeless' a little too loosely, ' Collopy said.

But she and her neighbors are frustrated by what they see as escalating problems with transients at the park.

The police - I should see them here every day, ' she said. 'This is ground zero.

Perception vs. reality

Police, meanwhile, say they're limited by manpower and more pressing crimes than someone urinating in public or looking suspicious.

'There are three of us for the entire city, ' Thomson said. 'Businesses on Eighth Street expect us to be there 24/7. We get 10 to 20 calls, emails and complaints a day about possible homeless. We have to pick and choose. '

It isn't to say that police don't take complaints seriously, said officer Barry Rizk, who is assigned to a team that focuses on downtown. But they have to put complaints about homeless issues in perspective, and that means taking a more holistic view of downtown policing.

'Here's the deal: Someone's downtown shop window is broken. That's their focus. If it happened to be a transient problem, that's their focus. But to us, it's an incident, so it may be the perception is worse than it really is, ' Rizk said. 'It's only one of the many things that we deal with. There is a lot that goes on down here. '

It goes back to Thomson's observation that the homeless get the blame for problems that may have been caused by someone else. Just last week, he got a call from someone complaining that homeless people were trashing Frank Waters Park east of the McDonald's on Wahsatch Avenue. He checked it out, and discovered that high school kids were the culprit.

What people are really seeing in a good portion of the chronic homeless population downtown are those who are mentally ill, have substance abuse problems or can't find a shower or place to wash their clothing - disturbing, scary or off-putting, perhaps, but not criminal.

'We have to keep in mind - people here have to keep in mind - that homelessness is not a crime, ' Rizk said. 'Certainly, no one asks to have a mental illness or drinking problem, but we can't just arrest for that. '

Thomson is more direct.

'Sorry they make you feel uncomfortable, ' he said. 'They're loitering, not attacking people or shooting people. '

More services needed

Most downtown merchants, service providers, police officers and others who frequent the city core believe more needs to be done for the homeless downtown, with the understanding that many won't accept offers of help or will take a long time to get to that point.

Among the primary needs cited by professionals who work with the chronically homeless:

-- More people to visit homeless people where they congregate and nudge them into programs. 'We're desperately, desperately short of outreach workers, ' said Bob Holmes, executive director of Homeward Pikes Peak. 'It's an exceedingly labor-intensive profession. You might make 20 or 30 contacts before a person will even give you one sentence in return. '

-- More treatment options for people who are mentally ill and uninsured or underinsured. 'There's a huge gap, so people fall through the cracks, ' said Cheryl Stine, a licensed professional counselor, addiction specialist and program manager for AspenPointe. According to several studies, people with mental illness make up about 30 percent of the chronically homeless population, and 50 percent also have substance abuse problems. In the most recent Point In Time survey, a one-day snapshot of homelessness in the area, 299 homeless respondents self-identified as being mentally ill, and 362 as chronic substance abusers, including alcohol.

-- More emergency, short-term housing.

-- More help for people who are not substance abusers. 'They're the harder ones, ' Stine said. 'There just aren't homes the chronically homeless can walk into to get off the street. There are more options for someone who is a substance user who is willing to give that up. '

-- A day center to take the place of the de facto day center, Penrose Library, and offer any number of services to people. Earlier this week, Mayor Steve Bach, and his wife, Suzi, unveiled a plan for a day center, but the project won't happen overnight. At this point, there's not even a location.

-- More affordable housing and programs. 'In my mind, the single biggest thing we need to solve homelessness is affordable housing, because everything else - mental health - improved when they get housed, ' Stine said.

For some of the chronic homeless, the biggest need is a job, but, for a variety of reasons outside of economic conditions, they don't have much hope. Epps believes his age stands in his way.

'It's hard to be homeless at 55, ' he said. 'It's hard to get a job at that age, on the streets. '

Stephen Fredo, 51, has the massive obstacle of a criminal record tied to a drug habit that brought about charges including larceny and assault on a police officer. He's cleaned up, but his record remains.

'If someone asked me to take a street-licking job for minimum wage, I'd do it, ' he said. 'But I screwed up, so I'm broke, homeless and jobless. But I have the utmost faith in God and my fellow man. '

Sydne Dean, associate director of public services for the Pikes Peak Library District, said she's heard patrons say they don't want to come to Penrose Library because of the homeless people who hang out there. And she understands. Some of the people smell bad, perhaps because it's hard to find a shower when you live on the streets. Or they're mentally ill and can't or won't accept help. Occasionally, some will overdose and pass out, or come in so intoxicated that they must be taken to detox.

But mostly, Dean said, the homeless people who frequent the library are there to use services, or just get out of the elements, and aren't a danger to the public.

'Some people will say, 'I 'm not going to come there. There's no seat, and it smells, ' she said. 'It's fear. It's not fair to the homeless, who are using the library like everyone else. They might be using a computer to contact family. So they are welcome, like anybody else.

'As far as behavior, we have security officers, and everyone is held to the same standard, ' Dean continued. 'Our guards are really good about knowing the people, knowing their stories, asking about medications. It's just an urban library kind of thing that happens everywhere. '

 

WHO WE INTERVIEWED

Sources for this story include the Colorado Springs Police Department's Homeless Outreach Team; Sydne Dean, associate director of public services for Pikes Peak Library District; Cheryl Stine, programs manager for AspenPointe; Officer Barry Rizk of the Police Department's Downtown Area Response Team; Sam Eppley owner of Sparrow-Hawk and president of the Downtown Partnership board; Boulder Crescent resident Annie Collopy; Mark Rohlena, president and CEO of Catholic Charities of Central Colorado; Bob Holmes, executive director of Homeward Pikes Peak; Dick Frieg, owner of Savory Spice; Jill Tiefenthaler, president of Colorado College; Anne Beer, director of Community Information Systems at Pikes Peak United Way; Pam Hamamoto of Horticultural Art Society; and some of the 200 or so chronically homeless people of Colorado Springs.

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