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With one year left to "house every citizen," homeless count stays the same


Steve Handen, a critic of the IDs-for-the-homeless plan, - runs a shelter on the citys west side. - NAOMI ZEVELOFF
  • Naomi Zeveloff
  • Steve Handen, a critic of the IDs-for-the-homeless plan, runs a shelter on the citys west side.

Steve Handen remembers a time before the poor were considered a "problem to be managed" in Colorado Springs.

The former director of Marian House started his own soup kitchen out of his home 30 years ago, on the premise that the poor and the rich could get to know each other by simply sitting down for a meal. But today, he says, Colorado Springs has weathered a "philosophical shift" services to the homeless now hinge on that group's commitment to upward mobility.

"The message is that "we'd like to give you enough potato soup so we don't have to deal with you anymore,'" says Handen, who now runs a small shelter on the city's west side.

Many in Colorado Springs point to a much-discussed ID card plan as illuminating of the city's changing approach to the homeless. Spearheaded by Bob Holmes of the social services umbrella group Homeward Pikes Peak, the Homeless Management Information System will allocate an ID card and a case manager to each person who avails him- or herself of the city's free soup kitchens, shelters and clothing warehouses.

The ID card plan was billed as a linchpin of Homeward Pikes Peak's five-year plan to "house every citizen," which kicked off in 2003. But the plan, which was originally slated for completion last year, has stalled because of software problems. Holmes doesn't expect it to be ready until the spring.

Even though Colorado Springs has seen the addition of 110 transitional and shelter-plus-care units to the city's housing inventory, the actual number of homeless has not decreased for the past three years. The homeless population has hovered around 2,000, he says.

"[The plan] is moving more slowly than I would have liked," he says.

All ID cards will include a picture and a bar code; the information stored within the card is up to the holder. Homeward Pikes Peak will use the cards to track the movement of the homeless and the poor throughout the city, with the ultimate goal of moving these individuals toward self-sufficiency.

"I think the thing that will slow us down the most is the will of the people to expend some energy to get themselves off the street," Holmes says.

The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, which allocates over $1 million to Colorado Springs each year, has mandated that Homeward Pikes Peak begin a new 10-year plan in 2008, which Holmes says will likely focus more on mental health and substance abuse problems.

According to Handen, those involved with the homeless community have reacted differently to the ID cards. Some, like James Edward Craven, think the cards will help the poor work their way through the maze of services in the city.

Craven spent his six-month homeless stint in the mountains, only occasionally making his way into town; he was largely unaware that the soup kitchens and shelters existed. Now a volunteer at Marian House, he says that most of the people he serves want to escape homelessness.

"If it's a regular ID, yeah, I think that would be good to get people off the streets," he says.

But others, like former homeless person Patrick Galmish, think the ID cards could leave the poor vulnerable and destroy their autonomy.

"You don't track a charity meal," he says. "You ain't tracking my ass."

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