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A homeless CEO in El Paso County?

Exploring the idea of giving people on the streets the resources to solve their own problems



The crowd that rolled into Colorado College's Armstrong Hall on May 9 was mostly a mix of the usual suspects: social workers, nonprofit employees, business owners, frustrated and/or compassionate citizens.

And then there were the homeless people.

Some shuffled into the "Community Conversations: The Homeless Divide" event quietly, and tried to take an inconspicuous seat. Others hung into the aisles, ready to offer a vocal response to any proposal made on their behalf.

And, boy, did they respond. The meeting, hosted by Colorado College and the Gazette, started with a panelist discussion intended to take place sans interruption. That didn't work out. Those who clearly had the biggest stake in all this talk couldn't contain their "Amens," boos, hoots and hollers.

The message seemed pretty clear by the end: There's homeless support for more services, but not for more controls on how those services are accessed. Laws aimed at the homeless — like the downtown panhandling ban thwarted by a recent court challenge, restrictions on aggressive panhandling, and the 2010 city camping ban — were all unpopular. And many homeless in the crowd seemed to doubt that the panelists really understood, or cared, about their needs.

During a question-and-answer session, Scott Anderson, who is homeless, said, "I'm so sick and tired of seeing the two-facedness of this town, when we turn around and point fingers, 'Go there, go there, go there.'

"You know what?' he added. "Jesus was homeless. We live in a Christian town. Why do we prosecute the homeless, period?"

In fairness, the panel, like the audience, was made up of knowledgeable people: service providers, a member of the police's Homeless Outreach Team, and Mayor Steve Bach's wife, Suzi, who had come to discuss her plan to create a "campus" of services for the homeless. But only Set Free Ministry Deacon Richard Peitzman, who seemed popular with the scruffier attendees, claimed to have direct experience living on the streets.

As in most cities, Colorado Springs' efforts to end homelessness have been directed by big charities that have built shelters, soup kitchens and clinics, and hired counselors, case managers and administrators. They've set strict rules, and when those haven't worked, they've set stricter rules.

But homelessness hasn't gone away. In fact, it's increased. According to an annual survey performed Jan. 29 as a requirement for the U.S. Department of Planning and Urban Development, there are 1,171 homeless people in El Paso County. Since 2006, the count has been higher only twice.

Nevertheless, leaders don't seem interested in changing their approach. Take Suzi Bach's plan for "Sunrise Village," a centrally located "comprehensive emergency services solution." Certainly, it would do the homeless a favor by putting food, shelter and important resources like showers and legal help in one place — assuming it can overcome major challenges like landing funding, bringing in partners and management, and finding a location that isn't sternly opposed by neighbors.

Still, Sunrise Village makes the same assumption most of our other charities do — that if we provide a hand up, the homeless will gladly take it. And if that was true, our existing nonprofits probably would have already wiped out most of the problem.

So we've asked some of our city's homeless what it would take to get them off the streets (see "Street philosophers," here). Some say they don't want to leave. Others say the existing services work, but a person must be ready to change. Some say greater convenience, like what Suzi Bach (who never returned our request for an interview) is offering, would do the trick. Others say the answer is more jobs.

But several mention a more radical plan, a more fundamental change: Instead of trying to help the homeless, they said, we should let the homeless help each other.

"Let's fund a shelter, a shelter where the homeless run it," Steve Gerson, who is living on the streets while he looks for a job, tells the Independent. "... With homeless people, if you're going to place some kind of authority on them, they want it on them, by them."

Sound like a crazy idea? It's been done before.

D.C.'s paradigm shift

The most famous advocate of homeless helping the homeless was Mitch Snyder. Born in Brooklyn in 1943 and raised in poverty, Snyder made his way on a fairly conventional path. He married, fathered two children, worked odd jobs.

A turning point came in 1970, when he was arrested for auto theft in Las Vegas. In prison, he fell in with a group of inmates interested in political and religious activism. Following his release, he moved to Washington, D.C., and joined the Community for Creative Non-Violence. There he protested the Vietnam War and worked on behalf of the poor.

As the war ended, CCNV's main focus became defending the homeless. And Snyder became CCNV's greatest asset. From the beginning, he had a flair for the theatrical, a talent for attracting attention. Years later, his obituary in the New York Times recalled, "In 1978, he led members of the Community for Creative Non-Violence in parading a coffin around the District of Columbia Building and dous[ing] the walls with blood to protest what he called the city government's inadequate attention to the homeless."

But it wasn't until the Reagan years, which brought huge cutbacks to social and mental health services, that Snyder became a celebrity. Homeless ranks were ballooning, and CCNV had set up a temporary shelter in the heart of D.C. The place was free-wheeling from the beginning, blending activism and social service under an ideal of self-governance. Housed in a decrepit, abandoned federal building known as Federal City, it became a flashpoint when Snyder demanded that the government not only give the building to the poor, but renovate it for them.

Snyder's method of coercion was simple and brilliant: He starved himself, nearly to the point of death, before a mass media audience. The showdown came in the midst of President Ronald Reagan's re-election campaign. Facing a PR nightmare, the president famously bowed and agreed to fund millions in renovations to the building. (Eventually, after more protests, pressure and publicity, Reagan followed through.)

Snyder's actions inspired books, a PBS documentary, and the TV movie Samaritan: The Mitch Snyder Story, starring Martin Sheen. And CCNV went on to advocate for passage of important legislation that brought funding and attention to the homeless.

Snyder committed suicide in 1990. But the shelter is still there, and is still operated and governed by its residents. Aside from a few professionals on its board, homeless people truly do everything. They fundraise to meet their budget. They decide how to spend that budget, and run day-to-day operations.

So how's it going?

A 2000 Washington City Paper story put it this way: "The concept — and the hope that gave birth to [the CCNV shelter] — hasn't aged well: Millions of dollars in renovations, Snyder's suicide, one 60 Minutes expose, one convicted executive, three presidents, and three mayors later, Federal City is a fossil of better intentions, a progressive antique that seems just as out of step with the times as massive high-rise public housing projects."

A shorter 2006 story by the Paper wasn't much more flattering.

From more than 1,500 miles away, it's hard to say whether CCNV is faring better these days. Executive Director Rico Harris didn't return calls for comment, but Scott McNeilly, staff attorney at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, notes that it is still rich in infrastructure and maintenance problems.

Eric Sheptock, a homeless activist, lives at CCNV, and has mixed feelings about it. He certainly feels lucky to have gotten in, since there is rarely an opening. And there are features he likes, such as a rule that allows residents to stay inside for some day hours. He says the maintenance problems are real, but he contends that's on the city, not CCNV.

On the downside, Sheptock says, CCNV can feel very top-down, with homeless staff condescending to residents. And he feels the place is lacking in the type of case management that can really help people toward self-sufficiency.

While CCNV shelters more than 700 people on any given night, it seems to have few, if any case managers. The Independent made three phone calls to the shelter to inquire about case managers. One representative said he thought the shelter had three such workers. The next representative said he could not reveal a number. The third representative, who sounded most authoritative on the subject, said CCNV was "a shelter" and did not have case managers. "We used to, we don't anymore," she said.

Which brings us to what some believe is a root of the problem: CCNV is huge.

"For some people, I think, it's been an extremely effective and important place for them," says McNeilly "... But it is a really big facility, and any big facility will pose problems for some people."

"It can be very difficult to establish relationships in a large facility," he adds, "and the relationships are often what makes the difference."

The Citrus solution

James Sleighter is no philosopher, and until recently, he wasn't much of an activist. What he was, was homeless. He needed a place to sleep, and being an enterprising man, he found one — and not just for him.

By the time a plane flew over and noticed the Citrus County, Fla., camp in 2008, there were 60 tents on private land. The police quickly put an end to that.

But Sleighter wasn't through.

"I'm a good fighter," he says. "I've never lost a battle."

In 2009, he opened a women and children's shelter, along with a men's shelter in the town. He followed it up by opening a veterans' shelter in 2010, and a family shelter in 2011. He opened another shelter, too, then closed it when he ran out of money. Things are looking better these days, he has yet another shelter in the works.

The entire operation, known as "Mission in Citrus," has cost less than $250,000 since its inception, largely because it's an all-volunteer effort. Sleighter estimates he's moved about 2,000 people to self-sufficiency on that money, and keeps in touch with about 450 of them.

He started the Mission with five homeless partners and a little financial help from a better-off friend. The shelters are in homes left empty by the flailing economy, procured through lease-to-own deals on the cheap.

Since most of Sleighter's clients do get jobs — and the shelter makes itself available to the community for paid odd jobs — the places are funded largely by $250 rent payments from employed tenants. That's supplemented by fundraisers, private donations and in-kind gifts from big-box stores. In July, the Mission is expecting its first grant.

Not beholden to anyone, it has largely been able to retain its original character, though it did add a board of mostly "church people" this year to help with fundraising and finances.

"The program was made by the homeless, for the homeless," Sleighter says. "All the rules were made by the homeless; all the policy and procedures were made by the homeless. Everything we still run by today was actually initiated by the homeless. Our success rate is off the [charts]. We just put 42 people out into the community, and that's half our population, and they all went into homes and with jobs."

All of this might seem impressive for a guy who came off the streets. But Sleighter, now 51, claims to have owned several businesses and substantial real estate until it was eaten up by a divorce and medical bills from a thoracic aneurysm that nearly killed him. Left destitute, but alive, he vowed to open shelters, believing he owed it to God.

Residents offer ringing endorsements online. And on the nonprofit watchdog group GuideStar's website, the Mission has 137 reviews that have given it an average of five stars, the highest rating.

The Citrus County Sheriff's Office is also impressed. It refers every person it evicts to one of Sleighter's shelters. An office representative, Rachel Warner, says it partners with Mission residents to catch criminals, and notes that Mission residents do plenty of volunteer work.

Warner doesn't know off the top of her head whether the shelters attract many police calls — Sleighter says they don't — but she does remember that the residents once paid for and presented a special appreciation award to the sheriff's office.

Those types of professional touches — and the business savvy to use them — are typical of Sleighter. He also gives out awards to businesses who hire his homeless clients. For a while, he ran a local TV program meant to show what homelessness is really like.

And in Citrus County, a fairly rural area, the homeless look disturbingly like everyone else. Many Mission residents lost their homes in the recession and are eager to get back on their feet.

Since Sleighter runs the only family shelters in the area, many of his clients are kids. He organizes field trips for them, hands out $20 when they come home with straight-A report cards, and has built them a playground.

"Most people are becoming homeless now due to no fault of their own," Sleighter says. "They're losing jobs. I mean, my own nurse ... became homeless and was here."

People with more serious problems do come to the shelter. Sleighter won't take certain felons, but does take addicts, assuming they're willing to get clean and sober. His approach to treating them is decidedly low-tech, but he says it tends to work.

"If they get drunk, they go down behind the Holiday Inn, they sleep near the pond and get bit up by mosquitoes," he says. "When they want to come back, and follow my rules, they'll come back with their tail between their legs and start over."

In the Springs

Set Free Ministry isn't a shelter in the traditional sense, but it's likely Colorado Springs' closest approximation to CCNV or the Mission.

Run by the formerly homeless who have graduated from its programs and been placed into a religious hierarchy, Set Free has the same DIY attitude as those institutions, with less of the free-wheeling spirit. It's essentially a church offering a structured, 13-month program focused on ending addictions, mending relationships, and bringing the homeless into the Christian fold. And it requires a commitment.

Founded 30-plus years ago by California biker Phil Aguilar, Set Free has seen its share of controversy. In addition to a collection of ministries and, early on, a church, Aguilar leads the Set Free Soldiers — a group that some call a Christian motorcycle club and others deride as a criminal biker gang.

The latter view seemed to dominate the press in 2008, after Aguilar and other Soldiers got into a bar brawl with a group of Hells Angels that left two members of the latter group stabbed. Originally charged with felony weapons and street-terrorism charges, Aguilar pled guilty to a misdemeanor and avoided prison, though one member of his gang is serving time in connection with the incident. Aguilar has denied any wrongdoing, and he's still revered by Set Free followers, many of whom have had their own run-ins with the law.

Still, some might be relieved to know that Set Free's founder has no direct impact on the Colorado Springs operation, which is run independently. Like other Set Frees across the country, the local one was started by a pastor who had graduated from the program elsewhere and decided to spread the word by opening his own ministry in a new city.

In this case, it was Keith "Outlaw" Huffman, who moved from a San Diego ministry in 2011, taking several staffers along for the ride. That includes Deacon Richard Peitzman.

Peitzman himself went through Set Free, of course, getting clean and sober in 2005 after decades on the streets. When he came to the ministry, he had been living in a wildlife preserve known as "the duck pond" for years. That earned him the name "Duckboy," which has stuck — so much so that his Set Free office is home to an oddball collection of duck figurines and Christian keepsakes. But silly nicknames aside, Peitzman says the job is dead serious.

"If you can't identify with the guy coming off the street," he says, "if you can't love that guy where he's at, no matter what he smells like, what he looks like, what he's done, then you don't have a place to be running this."

Originally, Set Free ran out of Huffman's home near Academy and Astrozon boulevards, but in January 2012 the group rented a building at 2225 E. Platte Ave., and opened a chapel, offices and a free 24-hour coffee shop. Anyone was allowed to hang out in the shop overnight. Sleeping was against the lease, though many people drifted off.

Thus it was a relief when, near the end of 2012, Set Free was able to rent buildings nearby and set up men's and women's dorms. These days, Set Free has expanded further into apartments, trailers and houses, most of which neighbor the main offices and chapel.

In addition to the 13-month program, Set Free now offers two hot meals a day, plus shelter on cold winter nights, to the general public.

Staff like Peitzman don't receive salaries, and last year the ministry operated with just over $76,000 income. The group takes no federal or state money, but does collect tithes and up to $400 in rent from residents with income. Other money comes from regular gifts from local churches, odd jobs performed by clients, in-kind donations from area businesses, and a concession business that operates at all of the state's major sports arenas. The concession business was just started recently, and is run by Set Free staffers.

Peitzman insists that "God provides" the ministry with money, allowing it to focus on bigger things.

"Our goal is to help people who want to help themselves to not have to live like that anymore," Peitzman says. "To not have to go back on the streets, not have to go back into prostitution, not have to go back into heroin addiction, or meth addiction, or whatever that is that keeps them out there."

Given the challenges, it's not surprising that only about half of the program's "disciples," as they're known here, graduate 13 months later. The program requires a schedule of classes, strict rules and chores. (A peek into a woman's dorm or the jam-packed men's lodging facility reveals neatly kept beds and belongings.)

M.J. Thomson, a police officer with the Homeless Outreach Team, says he's been impressed with the way the ministry welcomes anyone, and that it seems to run a tight ship.

"The only complaint that we hear [from the homeless] is that it's too religious," he says, "[that] they make people do too many Bible studies."

There are generally about 70 people in the program at any one time. And those who stick it out, like 37-year-old Raquel Raulette and 45-year-old Kenneth Jackson, say it's worth it. A big part of what's made the program successful for them, they say, is the fact that those helping them have walked in their shoes, and can mentor them along the same path.

Raulette says she was moved by "the love they show to everybody — it doesn't matter what you've done." Jackson adds he felt like the staff was able to reach him and change him on a deep level. "I was a very evil and selfish person before I came here," he says.

Of course, Peitzman is quick to note, allowing a bunch of former alcoholics, addicts and homeless people to run a shelter can present problems. Even long-time Set Freers may fall off the wagon. The Ministry isn't maintained by fixing people, he asserts, but by realizing that people have weaknesses and accounting for them. At Set Free, everyone, even the pastor, is watched. In fact, rules forbid any church member from traveling alone anywhere.

"You just got to know that you can run into problems," Peitzman says.

A rare thing

Matt Parkhouse is something of a local historian on homeless issues.

The advocate and nurse helped run the predecessors to the Salvation Army's New Hope Shelter and the Marian House Soup Kitchen for years, until the operations were handed over to bigger players in the 1990s.

Started and operated by community volunteers, the old shelter could accommodate just 11 men. Still, the system worked well until Parkhouse and the others got older, and keeping it up simply became too much trouble.

That's the difficulty with grassroots operations of any kind, he says: They rely on individuals. And that can be an even bigger problem when those individuals have big personal challenges.

Parkhouse can remember hearing stories about several shelters run by the homeless in the '80s and '90s, both here and in other states. There was one in California that seemed to function fine until the property was no longer available. Another, in the same state, quickly devolved into chaos and crime.

In Colorado Springs, one existed briefly on Spruce Street, but it too became a party scene. Complaints from neighbors led the city to shut it down. A similar shelter once existed on North Nevada Avenue, but met a similar fate.

Today, Parkhouse notes, "You can't get off the streets if you're still a practicing alcoholic, with a few exceptions."

In his opinion, homeless-led shelters face a world of challenges. A truly dedicated and talented leader can sometimes make the scenario work, but Parkhouse notes that not many people with the ability to get off the streets will choose to stay there.

"The problem with some of these do-it-yourself homeless communities is if somebody has good skills, they use them to stop being homeless," he says bluntly.

Neil Donovan, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, says there "literally is probably a handful" of shelters nationwide that are truly run by and for the homeless — probably because few can overcome the inherent challenges.

Shelters in general, he says, aren't very good at transitioning people to self-sufficiency. He says that eight out of nine people who come to a shelter will languish there, and he worries that a homeless-led shelter may cause people to "hyperidentify" with their condition, keeping them there longer.

But he believes the homeless-run shelters that do exist, including CCNV, tend to run as well as their peers. And he notes that they offer some real advantages, most notably the sense of connection between the staff and the clients and the sense of empowerment. In fact, Donovan is quick to point out, any shelter or service for the homeless should include homeless advisers and homeless workers — it's really just a best practice to involve people in their own care.

When it comes down to it, his larger concern is that they will struggle to stay open in a tough economy with few breaks. Even traditional shelters, with professional staffs, are facing financial problems.

"Shelters are slowly going out of business," he says, "so you need people that have the expertise and the ability not to be distracted by their own condition."

And as for the people who, hopefully, leave the shelters? They, too, wrestle with the most systemic of problems. Sheptock, the activist and CCNV resident, says that the two biggest are the glut of low-paying jobs and lack of affordable housing. Many homeless at CCNV work, he notes, often full-time, and they still end up in shelters for years.

"I have a lot of respect for Mitch Snyder and what he did, but I think we fell short when we got the shelter," Sheptock says. "And that's all that folks fought for. I think after we got the shelter, we should have moved on to fight for affordable housing."

And while the Springs is home to some people who don't want to get off the streets, some who do often point to the same problems. Steve Gerson, for instance, says he'd give anything for a full-time job. But he says the homeless are usually only offered part-time or temporary work. And even those positions can be hard to get to because city bus service is lacking. What's needed, he says, is a downtown factory, rich in blue-collar jobs.

"It doesn't take a major in economics," he says, "to realize that once the downtown starts shrinking, the city starts losing."

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