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'Invisible,' intractable



They have always been called "the invisible homeless," but these families dominated headlines not so long ago.

In the early years of the recession, news stories focused on parents and kids who lost their homes and ended up destitute. Those tales were easy to come by: Tent cities lined Springs creek beds, and makeshift shelters in the center of town overflowed with families.

But in early 2010, the city banned camping on public property. Tents disappeared. And so did homeless families — or at least it seemed that way.

Since then, stories about "the homeless" have gradually gravitated toward a different population: the panhandlers, mostly single males, who line corners and sidewalks. And sentiments toward homeless locals seem to have shifted as well.

Leading up to the no-camping ordinance, many citizens spoke out in defense of the homeless, calling on city leaders to show compassion. In the more recent debate about banning panhandlers from the downtown area, it was far more common for panhandlers and the homeless to be seen as dangerous and disruptive.

So, has the homeless population actually experienced a sea change from a couple years ago?

"I don't think there's a decrease in the number of families at all," says Homeward Pikes Peak executive director Bob Holmes. "... [It seems] to me, it's easily the same and possibly still getting a tiny bit worse."

Holmes' umbrella homeless group runs the Homeless Outreach Program out of the Aztec Motel on Platte Avenue, which offers shelter, help with job searches and counseling. The Aztec program focuses on families, and on average is home to 80 people, about half of whom are children.

Holmes says that before the recession, families often became homeless due to a deadbeat or abusive parent. These days, he says, the economy is the culprit. Parents can't find jobs — especially ones that pay more than minimum wage — and with fiscal uncertainty reigning nationally, employers are nervous about expanding.

Colorado Springs Police Homeless Outreach Team member Brett Iverson echoes that sentiment, saying he still finds many families living out of their vehicles. Some have come here from other cities, looking for work. Others have recently lost a job. Still others lost a job months ago, but have just recently run out of money.

In fact, Iverson says, when it comes to homeless families, "We've seen a steady increase for about a year now."

Just how many people are homeless can be tough to measure. A one-day count of the homeless in January 2012 showed an increase from 2011, with 1,127 people versus 1,024. But with more volunteers and a more thorough effort, it was difficult to say whether more people were living on the streets, or more had simply been counted.

Another indicator is how many people go to the Marian House Soup Kitchen for free meals. Sam Edwards, vice president of poverty reduction services at Catholic Charities (which runs the kitchen), says Marian House served around 210,000 meals in its fiscal year ending June 30. It will serve at least as many this year.

Edwards notes that Marian House keeps track of the approximate age of its visitors, and that those numbers tell a familiar story.

"We see just as many families," he says. "We've seen no change in that."

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