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New homeless outreach team joins local humanitarian landscape 

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click to enlarge Van Gogh trains volunteers in street outreach. - NAT STEIN
  • Nat Stein
  • Van Gogh trains volunteers in street outreach.

'Please know this is going to be both one of the most and least rewarding things you do," Andi Van Gogh told around 15 volunteers at the first meeting of a new civilian-run homeless outreach team gathered on a recent Friday afternoon. Van Gogh, sometimes homeless herself, shared tips and tricks for doing on-the-ground work in the Springs' homeless community as the team prepared to hit the streets this week.

Volunteers — who varied widely in age, motivation and housing status — had much to absorb as Van Gogh ran through slides on how to connect homeless people with the resources they need. That entails striking up a conversation, knowing what services are available where, and finding creative solutions to unpredictable problems. Fundamental to all of it, besides keeping certain phone numbers on speed dial, is establishing personal trust, which Van Gogh believes is the volunteers' greatest asset.

"Not being in uniform creates an entirely different dynamic, and that will give you an advantage," she told the group.

That thinly veiled reference to police is central to the team's mission to help folks in a non-threatening, non-judgmental way. Ironically, the idea came from someone who's employed to do the same work in uniform: Lt. Jeff Jensen of CSPD's Homeless Outreach Team (HOT).

After citing four protesters for violating the new sit-lie ordinance last month, Jensen was invited to speak at an arrestee's church. "I started talking about how before a major storm — not just snow but rain — the HOT team tries to give notice to individuals," Jensen says about his visit to First Congregational downtown. "But as it is, we're not able to reach everybody, especially with different camps scattered throughout the city."

Trig Bungaard, the arrestee and congregant in question, says Jensen's perspective was the impetus for forming the new civilian HOT team but that borrowing the acronym does not mean the two are affiliated.

CSPD's HOT team formed in 2009 to intervene before people on the streets enter criminal territory. The team's four officers and one sergeant try to connect people with services upon initial contact. Whether that means food, shelter, health care — the primary goal is to figure out what someone needs and where to find it. If someone is breaking the law (it's illegal to camp on public land, trespass on private land or sit on downtown sidewalks), HOT officers will give a warning and a chance to comply voluntarily. Citing homeless people is a last resort, Jensen says, especially now that the city has been forced to stop jailing homeless or destitute people for offenses that are not jailable.

Jensen says overall, the HOT team has a good rapport with the community. But the cops' shortcomings are two-fold: The team is simply stretched too thin, and the badges create an inherent divide.

"There's reluctance, often, to speak with us," Jensen says, adding that the local network serving homeless people has been strengthened by a new partnership between the city's two largest providers.

Catholic Charities of Central Colorado and Springs Rescue Mission announced last week their plan to divvy up different demographics of the Springs' homeless population onto separate campuses: families with children at Marian House, chronically homeless adults at the Rescue Mission on Las Vegas Street. The reorganization is more than a year in the making.

Andy Barton, CEO of Catholic Charities, which runs Marian House, says the arrangement will help the nonprofits "be more effective and efficient." It makes sense logistically, he adds, because Catholic Charities just received $350,000 from the state to revamp its Family Resource Center, which already offers childcare, computer access and case management. Springs Rescue Mission got $2.5 million from a community development block grant for its planned addition.

None of that is local taxpayer money, though Mayor John Suthers commended the charities' "spirit of cooperation and commitment to helping," adding that "[he wanted to] remind everybody in Colorado Springs that these organizations need your continuing support."

Later, asked whether local government would pledge that kind of support, Suthers told the Independent that, "realistically speaking, I don't think the city will ever have general fund monies to get into services that aren't a traditional government function." He agreed "construction of low-income housing is vital," adding that he'd "love to see us expand the actual housing the city provides."

Until that day comes, the affordable housing crisis continues to force people into homelessness. That's one of the myriad reasons the most recent Point-in-Time survey counted 1,302 people — a 21 percent increase from the same time last year. Shawna Kempainnen, who sits on the regions' Continuum of Care leadership committee and heads Urban Peak, which serves homeless youths, says regardless of its underlying causes, the everyday reality of homelessness means street outreach remains critical.

Several non-law-enforcement teams already do it. Urban Peak, Rocky Mountain Human Services, Catholic Charities and Peak Vista Community Health Centers have particular areas of focus: youths, vets, families and the mentally ill. Kempainnen welcomes the civilian HOT team but worries about newcomers' expertise.

"I'm afraid they're going to run into the same things all of us do," she says. "Lack of housing, lack of shelter, lack of health care. But overall, the more people who get involved in knowing and helping people the better."

The civilian HOT team is a collaboration between new players — the Coalition for Compassion And Action (CCA) and People's Access to Homes (PATH) — who hope their fresh faces will invigorate rather than detract from existing service providers.

That's why at least one volunteer at Friday's meeting, Val Samuelson, signed up. "What's out there isn't enough. It's not working," the former property manager turned peace activist said. "I need to be out there myself."

Anyone interested in volunteering can attend the next training session at 1 p.m. on Saturday, June 4, at Penrose Library, or go to the CCA Homeless Outreach Facebook page.

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