Denial had been a key player in Daniel Koch's life for decades before the summer day in 2013 when he found himself clinging to the edge of the Cimarron Street bridge.
Before he climbed over the railing, he hadn't known that he was approaching a breaking point. The cold reality of his misery was a surprise even to him. Mustering his strength, he climbed down, headed to America the Beautiful Park, and asked a woman to call 911, explaining that he had almost killed himself.
Now that he's had over a year of counseling, group meetings and sobriety to reflect on the situation, Koch says he sees all the ways his life had directed him toward that moment. There was his father, a career Air Force man, who had been physically and emotionally abusive toward him. There was the drinking that had taken hold of him as a teenager and followed him through most of his 56 years. There was the depression that started during his years in the Navy, in the late '70s and early '80s, he says, when mental conditions were politely swept under the rug. There was the meth addiction he experienced in his 20s that ended his short marriage and almost landed him in prison.
And of course, there were the last seven years he'd spent on the streets of Colorado Springs — years when he prided himself on keeping a tidy camp and bringing in enough money to take care of his needs, all while downing as much as a half gallon of vodka a day.
"I think I've been an alcoholic since the first time I tasted it," he says now.
For decades, Koch had been convincing himself that he could hold his life together on his own, even as key pieces of it fell by the wayside. And then, in that moment on the bridge, it dawned on him that he couldn't do it. He needed help.
Koch was ushered from the hospital to detox. And after a concerted effort to stay sober starting July 7, 2013, he was accepted into the Crawford House, a nonprofit shelter for vets that's funded through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. After going through an initial program there, he transferred to an 11-month program in Wyoming, then returned to the Crawford House. Now he's taking computer classes at Pikes Peak Community College, hoping to get a job as a peer counselor that will help him afford Crawford's transitional housing. (He says the jobs he held most of his life — property management, construction, landscaping — aren't a good fit now because he's begun to get pain and weakness in his hands.)
"This community has done so much for me," Koch says. "I have burned up so many of their resources. There's never a way I could repay Colorado Springs."
There could soon be more success stories like Koch's.
Across the nation, homeless service providers are working to fulfill a promise made by President Barack Obama to end veteran homelessness with the help of better organization and millions in federal grants.
Salt Lake City and Phoenix have already declared major victories. Could the Springs be next?
On Oct. 16, Mayor Steve Bach accepted the Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness by the end of 2015, a pledge made by mayors across the country. Experts say the resources are there to keep that promise, at least in the way that they're defining it.
Anne Beer, spokesperson for the Springs' new Continuum of Care, a group of service providers for the homeless, says the goal is to provide any homeless vet who needs help with access to housing and services, and to do outreach to homeless vets who aren't ready to make the leap yet. That's not too lofty — a head count of the homeless in the Springs on a single day in January found 46 unsheltered homeless vets, and another 95 vets in emergency and transitional housing.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has also set goals — to end chronic homelessness by the end of 2016, and other forms of homelessness by the end of 2020. Beer says that because the Continuum was only formed this month, it hasn't agreed to meet those targets yet. But she thinks it will be taking an aggressive approach because it now has the organization and the money to make big changes.
On the organization end, the Continuum is standardizing intakes across homeless service providers, so it's easier to identify the needs of individuals, connect them with the organization that can best help them, and figure out which services need to be expanded. On the funding side, the city has received additional federal grants, and more could soon be on the way.
Several programs are served by the money. First, the city will have 170 permanent housing vouchers through Veterans Affairs, Beer says, dozens more than in past years. The vouchers can pay the full cost of housing for a vet and his family, and a case manager who can help a vet with issues such as finding a job, getting clean and sober, or signing up for disability benefits.
Jim Tackett, manager of El Paso County Veteran Services and board president for the Crawford House's parent nonprofit, the Colorado Veterans Resource Coalition, says benefits can be a great way to get vets off the street. El Paso County vets and their families, he says, already receive almost $396 million in death and disability benefits annually.
Rocky Mountain Human Services, a nonprofit and member of the Continuum, also has a $2 million grant to fund its staff and vet programs statewide, and another $1 million to apply solely to El Paso County.
Craig Schlattman, the program manager for the nonprofit's Homes for All Veterans program, notes that the VA's vouchers are aimed at housing chronically homeless vets. RMHS, meanwhile, is focused on vets who are "acutely" homeless or at risk of becoming homeless — folks who just need a little help to get back on their feet.
Sometimes that's an assist with rent or a utilities bill, other times it's job training or a new apartment with the first few months' rent paid. The program is called Supportive Services for Veteran Families, and it's also funded though the VA. In 2013, it helped 598 families in this county; it aims to help at least another 500 families locally in 2014.
The VA is also continuing its funding of older programs like the Crawford House, which has eight spaces in its intensive outpatient substance abuse program, 13 beds in its emergency shelter for homeless vets, 10 spaces in its transitional housing program (which costs $345 a month), and 10 beds in a more permanent housing program.
Duane France, program director for the Crawford House, says that while his shelter has a waiting list, the good news is that many people are trying to help the same population.
"You can't throw a rock in Colorado Springs," he says, "without hitting an organization that wants to help veterans."
Of course, not all vets want to be helped. And everyone interviewed for this story acknowledges that some will choose to remain on the streets, or won't use the help offered to them wisely. Koch, though, says he's proof that's there's no reason to stop trying.
"You might just find one, out of all those people, who might just make it," he says, "who might have something to add to the rest of the world."
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