'Uncharted water' 

More are quickly falling out of housing, with no clear way back

click to enlarge After losing her most recent job, Tammy says it now seems virtually impossible to find work anywhere in the Colorado Springs area. - ANTHONY LANE
  • Anthony Lane
  • After losing her most recent job, Tammy says it now seems virtually impossible to find work anywhere in the Colorado Springs area.

The line outside Marian House soup kitchen is barely moving, but Tammy doesn't seem to mind as she greets a friend who's also struggling to find work.

"Did you hear about the job fair Thursday at City Auditorium?" the friend asks.

They exchange a few details, and Tammy realizes she can't attend she has an appointment to get eyeglasses. She wishes the friend well and continues waiting, shuffling forward each time a new group of five is admitted into the already-crowded lunchroom.

Only after eating does she reveal her frustrations with a job search that's going nowhere. Tammy, who asked that her last name not be printed, used to make good money as the lead cake decorator at a supermarket.

Now, she and her husband live in a motel room, and she's trying in vain to get any type of work.

"I can't even get a job at McDonald's," she says.

Different victims

Last year, Marian House served lunch to 400 to 450 people on an average weekday; now the crowd pushes 700 on many days, forcing a reduction in portion sizes and rationing of things like milk and yogurt.

Anne Beer, director of community information systems for Pikes Peak United Way, estimates the region's total homeless population is now between 1,200 and 1,300, up from 1,077 when the last count was completed in 2007.

But it's not just getting busier. Greg Morris, medical director of the Peak Vista Homeless Health Center, says he's also seeing a change in who's becoming homeless.

In the past, he says, people who ended up on the streets almost always had gone through a transition period. They might have lost their jobs, but held on to housing for weeks or months, allowing them to get dialed in with local service providers. Many also had underlying problems with mental health or substance abuse.

Now, Morris says, some people long accustomed to secure jobs are seeing their fortunes change with alarming speed.

"People are falling straight out of housing," he says, explaining that he's probably seen six such people in the past three months, after seeing one or two in a typical year.

There are other changes. Gene Morris, director of the Salvation Army's New Hope Center (and no relation to Greg Morris), says the city's main homeless shelter had been seeing one or two people a month whose forms indicated that their last residence was a home they owned. Now, Morris says, that box is being checked 10 to 15 times a month.

People who work with the homeless are trying to adjust. Peak Vista's Greg Morris says the federal Health Resources and Services Administration, which funds health programs for the homeless, is starting to look at how to track people impacted by current economic conditions. But, he says, it's not yet clear how to help everyone.

"This is all uncharted water," Morris says. "For the first time ever, I really feel kind of blind to the future."

Fighting on

The Resource Advocacy Program goes through about 16 pots of coffee on an average morning. They're consumed by homeless people who show up for help in finding services and housing opportunities, or who just need a warm place to hang out.

Coordinator Connie Allen says the program's new location, above the Peak Vista clinic on South Wahsatch Avenue, has helped it swell from fewer than 60 regular clients to close to 200. But that's not the whole story.

"There's more new homeless," she says.

Unlike Beer, who uses an actual count of the homeless, Allen estimates there are more than 2,500 homeless in the region, including people camping out, couch-surfing or scraping up money to get an occasional motel room.

Tammy, living in a South Nevada Avenue motel, resists the term "homeless"; she prefers to say she's in "transition." Either way, she's scrambling to find employment as her husband dumps his paycheck into their motel room. Recently, she was among more than 400 applicants for a job at a barbecue restaurant. She made it to the "bottom 12," as she puts it, before missing the final cut.

It was the same story at a deli and a bagel shop. In each case, she felt she had a great interview, but learned the jobs went to "frickin' college kids."

"They're so la-la-la, la-la-la," she says, laughing as she prances around and flaps her hands carelessly.

Her levity quickly wears away, and she comes close to tears when she continues talking.

"I'm 45," she says. "I'm too old to be young and too young to be old."

Tammy remembers her old job with medical benefits, vacation and a retirement plan. She now seems resigned to long lines at the soup kitchen and fierce competition for near-minimum wage work. She doesn't sound bitter, but like Greg Morris, she's having a hard time envisioning what's next.

"My life," she says, "will never be the same."



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