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Program works to end homelessness among Colorado Springs veterans

March 30, 2015 Updated: March 30, 2015 at 4:05 am
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Alvertis Richardson, 78, who spent much of winter homeless on the streets of Colorado Springs, sits Tuesday night, March 24, 2015 in his hotel room rented for him by Rocky Mountain Human Services. The nonprofit organization received a $3 million grant that will help boost its outreach to homeless veterans and hopes to train scores of volunteers this year to find veterans like Richardson and get them housing. Richardson will move into an apartment in the next couples weeks. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

Sitting in a cramped hotel room doubling as a home, Alvertis Richardson let loose a grin as he showed off papers promising a free apartment.

"It's great to be off the streets," he said.

A spry 78-year-old, Richardson dozed in the day and stayed up after dark to keep from freezing to death on Colorado Springs' cold winter streets.

The routine kept him alive, but now it's a thing of the past.

Homes for All Veterans, a program within the nonprofit Rocky Mountain Human Services, recently began training volunteers to walk the city's streets in search of homeless people just like Richardson - veterans. Its goal is to effectively eliminate veteran homelessness by the end of the year - often by first offering hotel rooms, then a more permanent place to live.

If successful, advocates say the push to end veteran homelessness could be the first step in addressing the city's larger, chronically homeless population.

"It's really a matter of: Will we as a community organize ourselves, and commit ourselves to addressing this issue?" said Craig Schlattmann, a retired Air Force colonel and Homes for All Veterans' program director.

The nonprofit began the project this year, modeling it off a similar campaign in New Orleans.

By the end of 2014, New Orleans officials said they were able to house 227 veterans while ensuring that newly homeless veterans could be housed quickly after being contacted by outreach workers.

Homes for All Veterans plans to take a similar approach in Colorado Springs, Schlattmann said.

An average of 150 veterans are homeless each night in El Paso County - a third of which are unsheltered, meaning they sleep outside, the nonprofit estimates. Annually, about 300 homeless veterans seek services from at last one area nonprofit.

Schlattmann said he expects the initiative to house roughly 300 people by the end of 2015, largely by working with other nonprofits and eliciting the help of volunteers.

"We need volunteers - we need the community to be engaged here, or we will not do this," Schlattmann said.

The program has 15 volunteers, but Phelps says he needs 50 people to reach its goal. The program asks volunteers to do outreach for two hours, two times a month.

Vows to end homelessness are nothing new. Mayor Steve Bach pledged to help house 100 veterans by the end of 2015 and reduce the number of unsheltered veterans to 30.

At Homes for All Veterans' disposal is a three-year, $3 million grant awarded by the Department of Veterans Affairs that ends in fall 2017. The money will fund direct assistance to veterans (such as money for a bed), along with salaries and office space for the program.

In addition, the grant will be used to create a veterans housing resource center, which will act as a one-stop shop for veterans to seek housing and other services.

Homes for All Veterans is in negotiations to lease a facility for the center, which will include representatives from the VA and other nonprofits, Schlattmann said.

The community has 176 VA vouchers to house veterans - most of which are taken - but it expects to get up to 30 more this year, Schlattmann said. Those vouchers include a case worker to help each veteran address the underlying issues that first led them into homelessness.

Some veterans, such as those who hold jobs or have fewer barriers to being housed, also can receive funding from the VA grant to help secure an apartment, often by covering security deposits or a limited amount of rent checks.

The initiative is based off the Housing First model, which offers housing to homeless people regardless of whether they are sober or getting treatment. By doing that, advocates say, those people have a better chance of addressing the issues that led them into homelessness.

The crux of the program, however, is a growing cadre of volunteers whose job it is to find homeless veterans and offer them the assistance.

One shift with a team last week showed the promise these teams hold - along with the challenges they face.

A bald man in a massive fur coat ranked among the first people greeted by the team as they neared through Monument Valley Park, just south of the Marian House Soup Kitchen.

He offered a few kind words to Andrew Phelps, the nonprofit's volunteer coordinator. The man changed his tone later.

"It's all a bunch of talk," said the man, who asked only to be named Andre, once the team moved out of earshot. "I sell drugs for more money than they ever give me."

The moment highlighted a sense of distrust that some homeless people have of outreach workers - placing an onus on the teams to bridge that gap, Phelps said.

"Outreach is all about building relationships," Phelps said. "And it takes a long time for some people to be ready to come in."

At the Salvation Army's cold-weather shelter, 505 S. Weber St., Phelps shook the hand of another homeless veteran, Daniel Murphy.

The two met the previous night, and Murphy said he visited Homes for All Veterans the following day. He has a job, but has had trouble finding a place to live since moving from New York to Colorado above five years ago. The difficulty stems from being registered as a sexually violent predator after having sexual contact with a 9-year-old girl.

So he stays at the shelter or on the streets.

"He (Phelps) knows a few homeowners or people that rent to sex offenders that are veterans," Murphy said. "Now I know he overlooks background barriers."

Though such cases are rare, the nonprofit can help sex offenders, Schlattmann said. And unlike the VA, Homes for All Veterans can help anyone without a dishonorable discharge.

That night, the team contacted five veterans at the shelter, three of whom visited Homes for All Veterans' office the following day, Phelps said.

Phelps points to Richardson - who entered the Navy during the Korean War - as proof of the initiative's viability. He has had problems receiving his monthly disability payments, and just shook his head when asked how long he's been homeless.

"Oh shoot, that's been quite a while," he said.

The first step was getting Richardson off the streets and into a hotel, Phelps said. The next step begins Monday, when he begins searching for an apartment paid for with a VA housing voucher.

Richardson learned of the voucher just three weeks ago, Phelps said.

And at that moment, the 78-year-old man broke into a jig.

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