Not every homeless person can be found waiting outside a soup kitchen or asking for change on a street corner. One might be a familiar face from the grocery line or school building, someone you'd never guess is just a guest room or basement away from being on the streets.
And the reality is, often they have more than just themselves to worry about.
"Family homelessness is the fastest-growing segment of homelessness in the country," says Donnis Martin, community relations and volunteer manager for Partners in Housing.
Sara Converse, 30, and her children were among that population. As her marriage crumbled, the Colorado Springs native took refuge with her great-grandparents, who had raised her. But after about a month, the elderly couple told her she had two weeks to move on — they weren't prepared for two lively kids like Jasmine, now 9, and Justin, now 7.
Fortunately, Converse found out about PIH, which provides fresh starts for people in situations like hers via its Homeless Self-Sufficiency Program.
"Without them, I'm not sure exactly where I would be. I'm going through a divorce, but now, I've come through the worst. Ever since I've been here, everything just keeps getting better and better," Converse says.
She was handed the key to a two-bedroom apartment in a historic building on the Myron Stratton Home grounds. Thanks to donors and other sources, PIH owns 65 homes and owns or co-owns 114 units of affordable housing throughout Colorado Springs.
To turn that apartment into a home, the Converse family was ushered into the PIH donations room to select furniture, linens and appliances. Converse was assigned a caseworker, who sat down with her to assess her education and employment history, then plan her next steps.
The questions that come up, says Martin, are things like, "What kind of a situation has she come from? Does she need therapy? Do the kids need therapy? What life skills does she need?
"And we do quarterly reviews with them to see if they're following their plan," she adds. "Are they moving along, going to school, getting that certificate?"
Clients are called "partners" to emphasize that they are expected to participate in their journey from homelessness. They're given one year (with a possible one year-extension if they qualify) to boost their income, employment and education, and to become self-sufficient.
PIH boasts a 77 percent success rate. In its last full operating year, it served 365 people in 139 households. In 22 years, it's changed the lives of more than 1,100 families.
According to its most recent statistics, 64 percent of the partners were single mothers, 67 percent were survivors of domestic abuse, 10 percent were veterans, and 9 percent had disabilities. Martin adds that 59 percent of the people PIH serves are children.
Converse is a little more than halfway through the program, and beams as she talks about her progress.
"I think I was brought here for a reason. Everything has just been timed so well. It's been perfect," she says. She took a class to refresh her skills as a home health aide, earned her certificate and, as of mid-October, was going on job interviews.
PIH also owns Colorado House, its facility at Colorado and Wahsatch avenues. That building houses 30 efficiency apartments, a computer lab, a child enrichment center and a commercial kitchen serving meals a few times a week.
But the need keeps increasing as support from federal, state and local governments shrinks.
"Instead of wringing our hands and talking about that, our board has had strategic planning sessions and decided, 'We don't want to rely on government funds anyway,'" Martin says. "We are working really hard to go out and talk to as many people as we can to help develop our individual donor base."
Five out of the 17 PIH board members are former partners, lending their unique perspective to help others.
As with most nonprofits, volunteers are essential for success. In PIH's last fiscal year, 220 volunteers gave more than 4,000 hours. They retrieved donated furniture, refurbished it and delivered it to families. They sorted donated clothes, helped with yard work or watched over children while their parents went to classes. One volunteer known as "Sparky" examines donated electrical appliances to ensure they're safe.
"I always say to people, 'What is your passion? What's your hobby, what do you love doing? And how could that help our families?'" Martin says. She volunteered with PIH for seven years before joining the payroll in 2007.
She also knows what it's like to live on the edge: she grew up in a family that relied on relatives for the roof over their heads.
"I think our community is full of people who are one paycheck away from homelessness," she says. "Every story is sad, every circumstance is different; they're all heartrending."
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Such a good point..Disrespecting the environment isn't exclusive to the homeless population.