One woman’s exploration into the Springs’ homeless problem 

Your Turn

Recently a conversation between residents of the Cordera, Wolf Ranch, Black Forest, Briargate and Gatehouse Village neighborhoods surfaced on Nextdoor, a social media network. A woman had seen a homeless man walking down the street pushing a cart (a rarity in that area) and felt it prudent to warn everyone. The thread ended with a man saying, “I want to thank you for posting about the homeless man in the area. I moved here because I do not want homeless people around me or my family…. Here is hoping for a long hard cold winter.”

Three months ago, I too was insecure about the homeless here and wondered: “Why would people who don’t have homes and need to beg for ‘anything helps’ make me uncomfortable?” What could I do? And then it came to me: I could challenge my assumptions and biases by educating myself.

Homelessness has been on the rise in our city since 2011. This past January, a Point-in-Time survey completed by the Pikes Peak United Way counted 1,415 total homeless persons, including 279 children and 198 military veterans. To better understand these statistics, I immersed myself in this unfamiliar community. I observed at Penrose Library; I interviewed a member of the Homeless Services Committee, an advocate for homeless youth, the editor for The Springs Echo, and a young woman who was homeless as a teen; I served breakfast at Marian House Soup Kitchen; I joined a Blackbird Outreach hike; and I went on patrol with the Colorado Springs Police’s Homeless Outreach Team.

I learned that homelessness doesn’t discriminate — and that there are a lot of good people looking for solutions to the homeless crisis here, but they need support. I was surprised to realize that there is no sure-fire way to tell who is homeless, although a sleeping bag cradled in someone’s arms or bowls of food spread out on the floor in the large, far-end stall of a women’s restroom might lead one to make assumptions. The homeless in our community are of mixed ages, races and gender. Sometimes people you think are homeless aren’t; they have shelter, they just don’t have food.

Something else I learned on my journey is that many of us want something to be done about the homeless, and not just in our own backyards. The irony of this is that collectively we hold the keys to unlocking the solution.
Here are a few layers of the problem that community advocates and leaders are grappling with now: 1) a lack of affordable housing, 2) a lack of centralized services, 3) a lack of low-barrier shelters, 4) the “criminalization” of survival — real or perceived, and 5) getting folks who are stranded in Colorado back home. Instead of forcing destitute people to make impossible choices and then blaming them when they can’t get housing or work, let’s come together as a community and do some creative brainstorming. Developers: What would incentivize you to build more affordable housing? Landlords: Can each of you commit to accommodating one more renter who holds a Housing Choice voucher? Readers: What can be done about the 55 children in School District 20 who currently qualify as homeless under the McKinney-Vento Act? Discuss this issue at your dinner tables and share your ideas with city leaders or nonprofits like The Coalition for Compassion and Action.

If you would like to safely develop your own awareness of homelessness, contact the CSPD and do a ride-along. Shadow Sergeant Curtis Hasling and Officer Tim Kippel for a day of homeless outreach like I did. The experience reduces fear and creates understanding. Mornings for these officers begin with a voice mailbox full of messages from both the homeless and the general public; some messages are polite, but most are riddled with profanity and demand help with homeless campers or tickets. Both men will tell you homelessness is a complex problem. “There isn’t an easy solution and people look to the police to do something about it,” Kippel says. “We are down men and even if we wrote tickets all day long it wouldn’t solve anything. We do what we can.”

That they do, with compassion. I saw this firsthand. With no shelters available in the city one Monday, the officers did not ticket campers. Their bigger concern was alerting people to incoming snow. I watched as they located camps, researched whether they were on public or private land, posted 48-hour notices, and spoke with campers to better understand their situations. They also handed out warm clothing, provided guidance on where to get food and showers, and checked on folks curled up alone in sleeping bags. The humanity behind the homelessness crisis came into full view for me.

Turning a blind eye to our homeless neighbors is no longer an option. I faced my own discomfort and now these folks are impossible to “un-see.” I challenge my fellow citizens to see the human being pushing the shopping cart that contains his every possession. And then, if you are creative, have resources or influence, and/or feel kindness and compassion in your heart, please contribute to this discussion. Otherwise, our homeless statistics will continue to rise. Every day I’m reminded of something a homeless advocate said to me when I asked him why I should care: “Why should anyone care? Because we are human beings. We have loved ones too. We have feelings, we aren’t robots, and we bleed just like you.”

— Stacie Gonzalez

Stacie Gonzalez is a mother of three, an aspiring writer, explorer and senior paralegal who has lived in Colorado Springs for 18 years.

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