Imagine this: Homelessness is best solved by providing homes to people who don't have them.
That's the emerging trend that has piqued the interest of activists who work with an estimated 1,000 homeless people in Colorado Springs.
"The logic is pretty irrefutable that if you want to get people out of homelessness you need homes," said Bob Holmes, director of Homeward Pikes Peak, a Colorado Springs think tank working on behalf of the homeless.
Since homelessness first became a national crisis in the early 1980s, the outreach approach has been largely through offering services, including soup kitchens and emergency shelters.
However, Holmes, as well as other advocates for the homeless, is exploring other models. Last week, more than 100 people who provide services to the homeless gathered inside the auditorium of Palmer High School to talk about new approaches.
Historically, homeless people have often been able to receive help and services if they are sober or agree to undergo counseling of various forms.
However, Holmes, along with longtime advocate for the homeless Matt Parkhouse cites model programs that advocate "housing first"-- like New York City's Pathways to Housing -- as potential success stories for Colorado Springs.
Launched 10 years ago, the New York program has found permanent housing for approximately 450 people -- most of who came directly off the street -- and boasts an 85 percent retention rate.
"Some homeless programs have the philosophy that people need services to get them ready for housing and then they can move into housing," said Nan Roman, president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness in Washington D. C.
Roman, who has been advocating the housing first approach for more than a decade, said she has found that people, especially those with disabilities and those who have been living on the street for a long time, want a place to live first and foremost. Other services, she said, are far more effective once people have a stable place to live.
Sam Tsemberis, executive director of Pathways to Housing, noted that many people with mental illness and substance abuse problems currently take care of themselves perfectly well in their own homes. Thus, he suggested, the notion -- held by many service providers for a long time -- that homeless people with similar problems need services before housing is a wash.
Crisis and chronic
During last week's forum, Parkhouse, who has been active on homeless issues locally for the better part of two decades, delineated between two classes of homelessness: crisis and chronic.
The former Parkhouse explained, are those people who typically are homeless for a short time, often the result of an unexpected crisis. Examples include a mother and small children who are fleeing domestic violence or a family whose breadwinner has lost a job.
The chronically homeless, on the other hand, are people who, for different reasons -- mental illness and alcoholism chief among them -- resist support services and have grown accustomed to life on the street.
According to Homeward Pikes Peak, the chronic homeless population in Colorado Springs is estimated to be between 100 and 150.
And, Parkhouse says, it's the chronic homeless who rack up the greatest costs to a community in terms of arrests, emergency room visits, and stays at detox and jails.
Holmes, the Homeward Pikes Peak director, concurred. "The reason we're targeting the chronic homeless is that for being 10 or 15 percent of the population they take up 50 to 70 percent of the money that is spent on homelessness."
Parkhouse estimates that taxpayers spend as much as $1 million a year in police and fire emergency services when responding to calls related to homeless people, who often are uninsured.
In addition, Parkhouse cited a recent study conducted by Penrose St. Francis Health Center that found a high percentage of homeless people who, without other access to health care, sought help from the hospital's emergency room -- 33 who visited Penrose's emergency room 209 times over the course of a year.
A novel idea
To Cyndy Kulp, director of the Housing Advocacy Coalition, the concept of "housing first" seems a bit obvious.
"What a novel idea! "We've been saying that for years," said Kulp with a laugh. "How can you expect anyone to get a job or deal with their health problems or deal with their addiction problems as long as they're out on the street?
Kulp, who has been agitating for a decade to pressure the city and private developers to provide affordable housing to the homeless and working poor, suggested others' newfound "common sense" approach is the result of grass seeming greener in other cities.
"If you're importing an idea from New York or something then somehow it's more sexy than if you had just thought of it yourself," she said.
This spring, Holmes plans to approach the Colorado Springs City Council to seek support -- and funds -- to help pay for new housing projects. In addition, Homeward Pikes Peak plans to seek funding from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.
-- John Dicker