Once you've gotten to the bottom of the pit, there are only a few places you can go.
There's a tent, there's the shelter, there's a smattering of intensive programs, and there's the little set of offices in the Springs Rescue Mission complex that houses the Resource Advocacy Program.
Unique in the nation, RAP, as it's called, takes the people who have hit absolute rock bottom. Often they're addicted to drugs and alcohol, homeless and mentally ill. Oh, and they're usually distrustful of the Man.
RAP has a small staff that includes advocates who have experience with homelessness themselves, and therefore "get it." Advocates build long-term relationships with homeless clients, and help them navigate the system of services, until they're ultimately independent.
So far, it certainly appears that the approach works. Which is great — except that RAP, which is funded by a one-time five-year grant, is running out of money.
Out of the frying pan
Director Dee Drake has been searching for a new way to fund the program, which costs a little over $100,000 a year to run. She's applied for a federal grant that she hopes to hear back on in spring. In the meantime, Pikes Peak United Way and the Daniels Fund have offered some support, and the National Alliance on Mental Illness has issued a small challenge grant. But RAP still needs about $80,000 or it will shut down when its grant ends in September.
On a Wednesday morning with snow coming down outside, the shoes of employees and clients squeak on the worn linoleum floors. Despite the frightful weather, the RAP offices seem animated.
Randolph Brown Sr. and his wife Mieke stroll into the waiting room, chattering with the younger David Thomas. They're talking about cooking, and suddenly, David's big, goofy smile hardens into feigned defensiveness.
"I can cook hot dogs and Top Ramen," David says, puffing his chest slightly.
Mieke shakes her head and mumbles that she sure isn't going to let him lay a hand on her stove — not when he shows so little talent with the microwave. So pretty soon, he'll be attending a cooking class at the nearby Independence Center.
Like a modern-day Brady Bunch, Randolph and Mieke Brown both had a bundle of children from previous marriages when they tied the knot years ago. With 10 kids now having grown up, only two teenage boys remain in the house. But even with empty-nest ambitions, the Browns couldn't resist taking in 31-year-old David when they met him at church.
David had no family left in town and was homeless. He was making an effort, living at the shelter, but was struggling.
David has Huntington's disease. Generally, an affected person first notices the signs of the genetic affliction in middle age, when it starts ravaging both motor and cognitive functions. It progresses at different rates, but by the time it's fully developed, a person often needs round-the-clock care.
So David became something of a 13th child, and Mieke started looking for a way to set him up in the outside world. Turns out, that wasn't easy. After exhaustively calling nonprofits, Mieke was tired and discouraged, and she still hadn't found the help David needed.
Then a family member called her.
"You forgot one," Mieke recalls her saying. "And I said, 'Who did I forget?'"
Pikes Peak Behavioral Health Group, as it turns out. Mieke called PPBHG, which in turn, put her in touch with RAP.
Now, thanks to his advocate, David has finally gotten to a doctor. He's enrolled in programs and is receiving food stamps. And he's nearly into housing of his own.
Road to success
RAP started in 2006, the result of an El Paso County Co-Occurring Disorders Collaboration grant from four private Colorado-based foundations, and a lot of planning between 14 local community agencies.
The hope was to create a program that would reach people who fell through the gaps in the system — usually those with a "co-occurring disorder," meaning they suffer from both addiction and mental health issues — and get them out of the revolving door of services, out of the hospital emergency rooms, out of jail, and into independent living.
Operating on a part-time basis with an annual budget of a little more than $100,000, RAP had given intensive help to about 94 people, and referrals to another 100, as of June 2009. The program has also trained more than 100 people who work with the mentally ill.
It's important that many advocates have been homeless, but as importantly, all of them exhibit extreme patience. Coordinator Connie Allen says it's common for an addict to relapse nine to 12 times before kicking the habit. So an advocate often has to stick with a client long-term to get him or her on a stable path with a job, therapy and classes.
It is RAP's approach, paired with the cooperative way it was created and funded, that makes it so unique. And others that provide homeless services, like Bob Holmes, executive director of the umbrella organization Homeward Pikes Peak, say RAP works.
"It's really the only day-service program that we have for homeless people in the entire city," Holmes says. "When we have a candidate for Housing First [a housing program for the homeless], we tell them to go to Resource Advocacy and see if they'll do that ... that kind of shows that they're serious."
Holmes says RAP has made great use of its grant funding, and he hopes it can find the money to keep going.
"There's nothing that could replace it," he says.
Just like us
"This is a great place," 54-year-old Fred Karre says earnestly. "That's what this place is for, to help you out."
Karre has been disabled since he was 22, when a drunk driver backed up over him at 55 mph. The crash crushed his hips, legs and feet, leaving the lower half of his body disfigured and making it painful to stand for more than a few minutes. Karre says despite his misfortune, he was overjoyed to escape with his life and his legs.
He got by until engaging in an argument with a roommate he says was stealing from him. Karre was kicked out of his apartment. He says he lost his head for a while and gave all his worldly possessions to a neighbor. He started drinking and ended up on the streets.
Karre's advocate recently helped him into housing. The little place has a bed and two chairs. Not much, but enough, with a disability check to pay for food and rent.
"We're always scrambling because every day has a new set of problems," advocate Daniel Van de Zande says.
Some clients just need medications to stop the voices in their heads. Others need help accessing Social Security. Usually, there's one major hurdle, and the rest follows more easily.
Drake says one of the biggest mistakes people make when they think of the homeless is believing that street people are somehow different from the rest of us. They have some major defect. They aren't well-educated. They're lazy.
But she's seen two Ph.D.s visit RAP, and many with master's degrees. She remembers that one family lost its bread-winner when the father got sick. The mother was so distraught that she developed mental health issues. They lost the house. That was it. They were homeless.
"People think it's 'them,'" she says. "It's really 'us.'"
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