Economy & Economic Development  December 30, 2010

Community Foundation finding homes

FORT COLLINS – Many people living in Fort Collins might think there isn’t much of a homelessness problem in the city.

Shoppers bustle through the busy downtown and picture-perfect malls, intent on purchasing that needed item. Life in the suburbs goes on as always, with people coming and going all day and lights beaming out from cozy homes on cold winter evenings.

But hidden from sight most of the time is the plight of the homeless – those who have lost their home due to foreclosure, job loss, family break-up or some other personal calamity.

And then there are those who, because of substance abuse or mental problems, wander the streets with no place to call home, living on the edge of survival.

In November, volunteers walked the downtown area for a week to try to get a feel for the homeless situation. Volunteers interviewed 229 homeless people, one of the first steps undertaken by Homeward 2020, an initiative of the Community Foundation of Northern Colorado. Its goal is to eliminate or drastically reduce the number of homeless people in the city by 2020.

Bryce Hach, Homeward 2020’s executive director, said the people counted in November were the chronically homeless, mostly single men and some women who have trouble functioning in society, due to alcohol or drug addiction or mental health issues.

Hach said that group of homeless, who often end up sleeping someplace unsafe and cold, repeatedly put themselves in life-threatening situations and live an average 20 to 25 years less than people with homes.

Hach said the lifestyle of this group often results in arrest, noting that 36 percent of jail inmates interviewed said they had been homeless during the year prior to their incarceration. Of the chronically homeless interviewed in November, 87 percent had been in jail at some point in their lives.

Hach said local shelters do a good job of providing temporary housing for the chronically homeless, but a more permanent solution is needed that will save money for society.

“The cost of keeping the chronically homeless out on the streets – going in and out of emergency rooms and in and out of jail – is more expensive than putting people into the housing they need,” he said.

A study by the Corporation for Supportive Housing found that it cost $15,275 on average to put someone in a supportive housing situation. By contrast, it cost $60,068 to keep that same person in a city jail cell and more than $430,000 in a hospital bed.

And there’s the indirect cost to business, Hach noted.

“Having a huge homeless population in the downtown is not good for the business community,” he said. “People say customers are staying away because of the homeless population.”

Hach said the November count indicated the city probably has around 180 chronically homeless people and around 1,500 “episodic homeless,” or those who wind up on the street because of a life-changing event.

Economic impact

Hach said the recent economic downturn has been a major factor in the increasing number of episodic homeless. “I would say it’s had a real impact,” he said. “Poudre School District counted 850 students who are considered homeless, and that’s 100 more than the year before.”

Hach said the episodic homeless are less visible, with most sleeping in vehicles or “couch surfing” at the homes of friends and family.

One of the biggest needs when it comes to ending homelessness, Hach said, is for more affordable housing. He said waiting lists for publicly subsidized affordable housing is around one year for an individual and two to four years for a family.

Hach said he advocates a “housing first” model as the best way to stabilize a homeless person or family.

“If you just provide mental health or substance abuse counseling, they’re going to go right back to the same situation they were in before – survival mode,” he said. “The core issue is housing, because as long as they’re in survival mode we’re just spinning our wheels.”

Hach said some local developers and affordable housing groups, like CARE Housing, which recently broke ground on Provincetown Green in south Fort Collins that will ultimately provide 160 new affordable housing units, are doing what they can to ease the affordable housing need.

“But we have to look at this as an entire community,” he said. “I don’t think it’s fair for developers to bear that cost on their own shoulders.”

Homeward 2020 is gathering partners to help in its mission to end homelessness in Fort Collins within the next 10 years. Those partners include the Fort Collins Housing Authority, CARE Housing, Crossroads Safehouse, Neighbor to Neighbor, The Sister Murphy Center for Hope, Open Door Mission, Catholic Charities Northern, the Homeless Prevention Initiative, the Larimer Center for Mental Health, Larimer County Workforce Center, Poudre Valley Health System, Fort Collins Habitat for Humanity, A Place for Peace, United Way of Larimer County, SAVA and Disabled Resource Services.

“The next step in the 10-year plan is to bring all these different agencies and organizations together so we can pull together and no one entity has to shoulder that on its own,” Hach said.

Hach said Homeward 2020’s primary role will be as a “convener” to bring the community together to tackle the problem. He acknowledged that the Fort Collins community has not been idle when it comes to addressing the homelessness issue.

“A lot of the groundwork is already being done,” he said. “There’s a lot of good things already in play.”

One of those is the Homeless Prevention Initiative, which provides funds to people experiencing financial difficulties to keep them from losing their homes. Sue Beck-Ferkiss, HPI executive director, said she is “thrilled” to have Homeward 2020 developing a 10-year plan.

“It shows how our city is planning for this and taking on a problem together,” she said.

“Any effort can only improve things,” added Rev. Richard Thebo, founder of the Open Door Mission. “I think Bryce is a good man and totally sincere, and I’ll stand behind him 100 percent to help him.”

Hach said there will likely still be homeless people in Fort Collins in 2020, but the true goal of the initiative is to reduce those numbers in a growing community and to help shorten the time people remain homeless.

And that can happen in a city like Fort Collins, which Hach noted has already shown its determination to help the homeless.

“I think it’s a compassionate community and a collaborative community willing to look at this collaboratively,” he said. “Having that culture already in place is a wonderful asset for everything we’re trying to do.”

FORT COLLINS – Many people living in Fort Collins might think there isn’t much of a homelessness problem in the city.

Shoppers bustle through the busy downtown and picture-perfect malls, intent on purchasing that needed item. Life in the suburbs goes on as always, with people coming and going all day and lights beaming out from cozy homes on cold winter evenings.

But hidden from sight most of the time is the plight of the homeless – those who have lost their home due to foreclosure, job loss, family break-up or some other personal calamity.

And then there are those who, because of…

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