Homelessness in Glenwood Springs area on the rise
GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado ” Some recent visitors to the Feed My Sheep day center, a place where local homeless people can grab a meal, take a shower and do some laundry, could serve to underscore the state of the homeless in a recession economy.
“With the economy the way it is, we are seeing more professional people come through our doors,” said Kenneth Williams, associate director of Feed My Sheep, which operates the downtown Glenwood day center and maintains a wintertime “shelter” program at a local motel.
“We had a couple of people come down from Aspen who had been laid off, and their housing was tied to their jobs,” Williams said. “We also get people who come out here for jobs in certain industries, but then are told there isn’t a job for them, or if they have a job, they still can’t find housing.”
Usually, this segment of the homeless population is able to rebound more quickly.
They’re often back on their feet with a new job and a place to live within two or three months, he said.
But even that remains to be seen with the current recession. In any case, it’s just another sign of the times.
Last week, the Homelessness Research Institute of the National Alliance to End Homelessness (NAEH) released its second Homelessness Counts report.
The report contained good news, showing a 10 percent decrease in homelessness in the nation between January 2005 and January 2007.
But there’s an addendum to that report.
Despite the encouraging news, the recent recession and housing foreclosure crisis are believed to be turning the trend in the other direction, a press release from the NAEH forewarns.
“Increasing numbers of unemployed people are unable to afford rent, and charities and local governments are unable to keep up,” it said.
Williams said the day center typically sees its numbers drop over the winter, since most of Glenwood Springs and the greater Roaring Fork Valley’s transient homeless population is more likely to be here during the warmer months.
Already this month, the center is averaging 27 people a day, up from a 16 per day average last winter, he said. That number jumps to between 30 and 60 people per day during the summer, Williams said.
Feed My Sheep also reserved an extra room at the Silver Spruce Motel for its overnight shelter program this winter.
“Six of the seven nights a week we’re at our limit of 25 people,” Williams said.
Although it doesn’t provide services directly related to the homeless, another local poverty relief agency, Lift-Up, has seen an increase in numbers for its food pantry program, and the nightly Extended Table meals that are served at the Glenwood Springs Methodist Church.
This past December, the Extended Table served more than double the number of people it did in December of 2007, an increase from 577 to 1,202, according to Mike Powell, executive director of Lift-Up.
“For the year (2008), we were up a little bit,” from 9,700 meals served in 2007 to nearly 11,000 last year, he said.
“We’re probably seeing more working people,” Powell said. “I don’t think that our homeless population has jumped by a lot, but people are struggling with what they do have, and trying to make it go farther.”
Williams was invited to a Carbondale Board of Trustees meeting last week to speak about his agency’s services, after concerns were raised about the growing homeless contingent living near and regularly panhandling at the intersection of Highways 82 and 133.
“What can we do?” Trustee Pam Zentmyer asked. “In a community like this, to have people who are homeless is not what we pride ourselves on.”
It’s a sentiment expressed in communities all over the country, which struggle with being able to fund enough services to help the homeless, while also wanting to protect their public image.
Some have responded by cracking down on panhandling.
After concerns were expressed in Glenwood Springs about panhandling at the entrance to the Roaring Fork Marketplace, the city passed an ordinance against panhandling there. Grand Junction has also enacted similar restrictions. The Supreme Court has upheld the right for people to panhandle in public places, although cities may pass ordinances against aggressive panhandling and panhandling at certain locations for safety reasons.
An estimated 15 or so homeless people are currently living under the Highway 133 bridge or camping in the nearby woods outside Carbondale, Williams said. They often stand at the highway intersection with signs looking for spare change.
Most know about Feed My Sheep’s services, Williams said. Unfortunately, some have worn out their welcome.
“There is accountability for behavior with use of our services,” he said. “For instance, if someone gets arrested more than three times in a year, they are no longer eligible.”
Feed My Sheep puts an emphasis on helping people obtain and maintain jobs.
About 75 percent of its clients work part time, compared with the national average of 10 to 15 percent. And, according to Williams, more than 80 percent have lived in the area long-term.
“Our goal is to improve our relationship with the homeless, and to help them be more a productive part of the community,” he said.
The winter shelter program, which operates from Nov. 15 to March 15, is strictly meant to keep people out of the cold and save lives. It was started after a local homeless woman froze to death a couple of years ago.
“What we don’t have is a year-round, continuous shelter, and there is a huge need,” Williams said.
An attempt to establish a shelter in Glenwood Springs ran into opposition.
“There is a fear that a shelter would attract homelessness, which is seen as being in conflict with tourism,” he said. “I don’t see a shelter as increasing the problem, as much as relieving that conflict with tourism.”
It’s a discussion that will likely resume at some point, Williams said.
Another critical need is for mental health evaluations.
“Some people want counseling and treatment, but they can’t afford it,” he said. “I think we can do a better job of bringing some of these services together.”