Posada blames weed for homeless influx in Pueblo, Councilor says they don't need a shelter 

Pueblo charity to homeless: Stay out

click to enlarge Pueblo Rescue Mission will reopen a Salvation Army warming shelter. - ZAHRIA ROGERS
  • Zahria Rogers
  • Pueblo Rescue Mission will reopen a Salvation Army warming shelter.

Posada, a Pueblo nonprofit that provides housing and supportive services to homeless youth and families, posted a blunt message on its website addressed to individuals looking for assistance in the southern city.

"Posada has been experiencing unprecedented increases in people in need of services. Many families and individuals are relocating to Pueblo for legal marijuana, benefit acquisition (as Colorado is a Medicaid Expansion State) and the perceived affordability of housing," it reads in part. "... The demand [for beds for the homeless] far exceeds the vacancy rate and families are being housed in local motels for short periods of time. Pueblo families are always given priority!"

The post (tinyurl.com/Posada-nonprofit) goes on to say that Posada will offer little help to outsiders and suggests that people considering a move to the city should have employment and ample funds for housing. And it notes the hurdles involved in getting a job in Pueblo, particularly in the marijuana industry.

While some might view the message as harsh, or as an attack on the area's thriving cannabis industry, Posada Executive Director Anne Stattelman says her motivation for the post was compassionate: A sudden influx of homeless people in the past couple years has overwhelmed the local service agencies, she says, which are badly underfunded.

Part of the funding problem has to do with the way the federal government divvies up dollars for the needy.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) requires that communities conduct an annual homeless headcount, or Point in Time survey on a single day of the year. Communities across the country consider it an undercount, but even with that assumption in mind, the 2017 Pueblo County survey appears to be way off. It estimated just 1,828 people were homeless in the area — that's about one-fourth of the 7,840 unique homeless persons Posada's HUD-required tracking system found it served in 2016. The latter number, by the way, is a staggering increase from 2015, when Posada served 4,946 people.

"People cycle in and out of homelessness, as you know, but what it does show is that every homeless count is an undercount," says Stattelman in an email.

Nevertheless, HUD uses the Point in Time headcount, not tracking systems used at charities, to determine how much federal money a community is given each year to help homeless people.

The Pueblo headcount's low numbers could reflect a population that leaves in the colder months — the 2017 survey was conducted on Jan. 24. According to Pueblo City Councilor Lori Winner, who says she's cleaned up "many, many bum camps," the homeless population tends to dwindle in winter.

"They're transient," she says. "I mean, you don't see really anywhere near the people out begging that you do in the summertime. As soon as it starts getting cold, you see less and less of that homeless faction."

There's no way to tell for sure why the needy come to Pueblo, but, according to Posada's records, more than 600 households self-reported relocation to Pueblo for legalized marijuana.

Brandon Beauvais, Crime and Prevention Officer for Pueblo Police Department and lifelong Pueblo resident, agrees that many homeless are coming for the weed.

"If you ask them how they ended up in Pueblo, Colorado, they're oftentimes going to tell you they're not from here and they ended up here because of our laws, and because of the ability for them to access and smoke marijuana legally."

But not everyone agrees that pot is to blame for the city's homeless crisis. Marcos Baca, dispensary manager at Strawberry Fields' central Pueblo location, says that while he's seen a lot of travelers from out-of-state, they're not homeless.

"I wouldn't really say that it's a true rumor, because I haven't seen any homeless people walk in," he says.

Whatever the cause, budget constraints have prompted Posada to change its mission. The organization can no longer afford to provide long-term shelter for single homeless adults, and the homeless outreach program shifted its mission earlier this year, focusing primarily on homeless families and youth.

The 2017 headcount estimates that youth under 18 make up around 25 percent of Pueblo's homeless population. It also estimates over 1,000 unsheltered households.

"We have to kind of focus our services and say, you know, we can only really support those people who are here from Pueblo because, you know, that's who we get the funding to help," Stattelman says.

Posada is not the only organization in Pueblo that's struggling. The Salvation Army closed its warming shelter earlier this year, citing a lack of funding. Like Posada, it is also changing its focus to helping homeless families and youth. But as the season grows colder, the need for an overnight shelter for single men and women increases.

Pueblo Rescue Mission (PRM), which consolidated with Springs Rescue Mission in spring 2017, had plans to renovate its warming shelter on West 13th Street. However, staff soon discovered that the plumbing and electrical wasn't up to code, among other infrastructure problems. Even with generous donations, there was not enough funding to continue the renovation.

"We discovered that the cost was going to be over a million dollars to renovate that building. It wasn't good judgment on our part to put that kind of money into that building," says Jackie Jaramillo, PRM's CEO.

PRM proposed a temporary shelter in the Hyde Park Community Center to Pueblo City Council on Nov. 27, but the idea was not well-received by residents. After realizing Council wouldn't approve the ordinance for the shelter, Jaramillo opted to consider other options.

Now, PRM has struck an agreement with the Salvation Army, reopening the latter charity's old warming shelter until April. However, the location is not projected to open until Jan. 1, 2018, leaving a few more cold nights for homeless men and women. Jaramillo worries for the safety of individuals camping in frigid temperatures.

But Winner, who voted against the Hyde Park proposal, says there may not be a need for a warming shelter, as the Salvation Army's shelter was not at capacity when it was open. While she concedes that there are families who are homeless due to hard times, she says there are others who choose to be homeless.

"A lot them are fine," she says. "They are in a nice, expensive tent and they've got expensive, warm sleeping bags and a great big bonfire. They don't have any interest, really, in going to a shelter because at a shelter they can't drink and they can't shoot heroin, they're going to have to shower and they're going to have to behave."

But Jaramillo notes that the Salvation Army shelter served as an overflow shelter for PRM, which is why it was never at capacity. Plus, when the warming shelter reopens, those seeking refuge will not be required to pass a sobriety test.

"I know for a fact that there are at least 200 individuals living on the streets, under bridges and along the river banks who need shelter during the coldest months of the year," she says.

And one Pueblo homeless man, who goes by "KC," says that people living under the city's Fourth Street bridge live a considerably less luxurious life than the one Winner describes. "Some of them got tents," he says, "but most of them live under the bridge."

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