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Patching the net

As Bob Holmes moves to mend a struggling program, local homeless people see mostly red tape



Out in a shed behind his brother's house, Patch sleeps on four plastic storage tubs. The arrangement's not bad, he says — covered with a board and several blankets, it feels almost like a bed.

And the shed, at least, is quiet, unlike the homeless shelter where Patch spent four months this winter and spring. There, he could always hear other homeless people breathing or snoring.

Worse, he could hear them coughing.

"The whole time I was in there, I got sick three times," Patch says, matter-of-factly. He laughs gently as he continues: "I call it the 'kennel cough' or the 'shelter crud.'"

Though he shows no sign of bitterness, you could expect some. Early this year, soon after moving into the shelter, Patch — whose real name is Ken Brown — learned he qualified for a program that could pay for him to get his own apartment.

It required a year of homelessness; Patch had been homeless the better part of 32 years, his life becoming an undifferentiated blur of nights spent in stairwells, shelters and shitty motel rooms. He also needed a history of addiction and mental illness; he had both.

After growing up in Colorado Springs, he'd finished high school in Hawaii. That's where he first got "blacked-out drunk," starting a pattern that would continue most of his adult life. He finally quit last year; when he got prescription drugs to treat his anxiety, depression and bipolar disorder, he lost the urge to drink.

"I was self-medicating, they tell me," he says.

"They" certainly have been helpful in some ways. But those people who hold the key to Patch's new life work within a multi-tiered bureaucracy that would test anyone's patience, not to mention sobriety. After a couple months in the shelter, Patch was still hearing federal money remained available to put up to 10 new people in the program. But the city was "hung up" with paperwork.

Speaking by phone in early April, Patch broke from his normal stoicism.

"I'm getting kind of upset about it," he said.

'I'm not picky'

Two months later, the wait continues. But having stayed in that west side shed for a few weeks, Patch seems more relaxed. And the Housing First program, as it's called, is sputtering forward again under the control of Bob Holmes, who runs Homeward Pikes Peak, an agency that coordinates local homeless services.

On June 5, Patch meets with Lisa Kistler, Housing First's program manager. Things go well, and she shows him an apartment in southeast Colorado Springs that could soon be his. There's loud music coming out of a nearby unit, and the apartment shows wear from previous tenants, but Patch seems pleased with what could be the first place he's ever kept on his own.

"I'm not picky," he says.

The cost to taxpayers for housing him will be around $6,000 a year, plus about an equal amount thrown in for local case management and support services. The idea, proven in cities like New York and Denver, is much bigger: By stabilizing and supporting the lives of the chronically homeless, you reduce or eliminate their need to visit emergency rooms or interact with police, saving thousands.

Patch, by Holmes' estimation, is one of more than 500 chronically homeless people living in Colorado Springs. (Though fewer than 200 were found during an official head count conducted in late January, Holmes splits the difference between that number and estimates from some homeless residents and advocates who put it at 800 or more.)

Others who were waiting with Patch to join the program three months ago are long gone. His friend Terrance, who qualified, too, has disappeared, likely to a campsite.

Patch doesn't know precisely why, but he keeps showing up early for appointments and filling out paperwork. Maybe it was turning 50 in February and realizing, "I'm too old for the streets." Sleeping outside early last winter, he says, just felt cold.

He's now signed up for a whole gamut of social programs — Medicaid, food stamps, federal disability — he once avoided.

"I wouldn't take none of it," he says. "It was the system."

The $54,000 question

With neat gray hair and a penchant for talking about cost savings instead of compassion, Bob Holmes in many ways embodies the system.

Five years ago, he put together a consortium of six local nonprofits to start Housing First. Based on the work of New York psychologist Sam Tsemberis, the basic idea is to move homeless people into housing, give them services, and see what shakes out.

"There's such a profound psychological shift that occurs when a homeless person gets their own space," Holmes says. "Once stability sinks in, they start to relax, equilibrate."

Though participants aren't required to swear off drinking, Holmes continues, when they're housed they often scale back.

This "harm reduction" approach can result in big savings. In 2006, Denver released a study comparing the cost of jailing, detoxing and treating homeless people at ERs and hospitals in the two years before they entered the city's program to their first two years in it. At a time when Denver had 150 program slots, researchers found, the average per-client savings came to $31,545 annually.

As part of a broader effort to eliminate homelessness, Denver has expanded to 200 slots.

Colorado Springs has federal grant money that could fund housing for 30 or more clients; there are now only 20.

The main reason has been unreliable funding for case management, which does not come from the federal government. Of the six nonprofits that had once agreed to help provide that funding for Housing First clients, all except Harbor House had dropped off by earlier this year, mostly because they ran out of money or had to put it someplace else. And then Harbor House, whose primary mission is to help the homeless recover from addiction, encountered its own financial problems.

When Holmes signed an agreement with the city June 3 to take the reins, he essentially agreed to start "from scratch." He figures it costs $2,500 each year to track and supervise each client, and also to fill out reports. So immediately, he's trying to raise the $50,000 he needs to keep the program going at its current size, plus another $25,000 to fill out those final 10 slots. His goal is to add one person per week until he's there.

In the next three years, Holmes wants to expand the program to 100 clients, partly by shifting established clients into different programs, like Section 8 Housing, to free up less restrictive Housing First slots. So at $2,500 per client, that'd mean about $250,000 in donations from the community.

He believes it should be an easy sell: "We're saving you money as taxpayers."

Factoring in savings from avoided ambulance rides, police time and other services, Holmes guesses his program can save local hospitals and emergency service providers around $54,000 annually for each homeless person he takes off the streets, all for the cost of an apartment, a case manager and other basic services.

"I don't talk about the right thing to do or compassion," he says. "We are removing people from the streets who are problematic."

Holmes acknowledges that taking 100 people off the streets will not solve the local homeless problem. But even though the number of chronically homeless people could easily climb back to 500, Holmes says, "It's better than having 600."

Changing his ways

In some ways, Patch is ahead of the game for someone about to get into the Housing First program. The Salvation Army's New Hope Shelter, where Patch spent the winter, has a no-drinking policy, and Patch was ready to give up his "high-gravity" beer when he entered.

"When you get older, you can't party like you used to," he says.

Over the years, he figures, drinking cost him many odd jobs working as a custodian or doing landscaping. In New Jersey in his early 20s, he held a job for about a year making cabinets. He can't remember how the job ended, but guesses, "I was probably getting too drunk."

The oldest of four children, Patch was named after his father, who had a long career in the Air Force. That kept the family moving over the years, but Colorado Springs probably came closest to becoming his home. He arrived when he was about 10, and had started at Widefield High School before his family uprooted to Hawaii.

After graduating in the late '70s, he came back to the mainland. Working sporadically, he traveled the country, spending time in California, New Jersey and elsewhere, but always coming back to Colorado Springs.

By 1991, Patch saw himself as something of a local tough guy. After learning a friend had been jumped, he sought out the attacker in an industrial area near the intersection of Royer and Las Vegas streets. Instead of getting revenge, he got a hurled wine bottle smashed over his face, costing him an eye and earning him the nickname that has stuck with him nearly 20 years.

His hospital stay afterward was brief: "They took the eye and kicked me out."

It's hard now to imagine Patch drunk and angry, as he was on that day. Though he's nearly 6 feet tall, his slight build and soft voice make him seem unobtrusive. That, in sober times, allowed him to escape the notice of authorities.

But coming close to invisibility can make it harder to get help. This past winter, fed up with life in the shelter, Patch found himself "seriously hurting." To get meds, friends told him, he should go to the hospital and say he was going to kill himself "and a bunch of people."

He scaled that back, fearful too much anger could land him in the state mental hospital at Pueblo. So he just said he was suicidal. He spent a couple days in the hospital and got the meds he needed.

Now, with Medicaid, Patch is in position to begin regular visits with a therapist. Even with the pain he felt, he confesses it might not have been enough for him to actually become suicidal: "I'm too scared to kill myself."

A tighter ship

The apartment building where Kistler wants to place Patch sits a couple miles southeast of downtown.

She asks that the precise location of this and other spots where Housing First clients are placed be kept out of print. One problem she inherited after starting with the program in April 2008 is that some units essentially had become flop houses. Old friends and associates, learning of a friend who hit the housing jackpot, saw a chance to spread the wealth around.

Patch says he knows the danger.

"I've seen people with housing lose it," he says.

Kistler's pride and joy is actually a different apartment building, tucked into a residential area not far from the U.S. Olympic Training Center. Housing First clients occupy eight of 28 apartments there, and they recently led a beautification project, planting flowers in small beds in front of the units.

It wasn't always that way. Greg, who asked that his last name not be printed, says that after buying the building last year, he and his family thought of ejecting the Housing First clients. The place was a mess, and there were instances of public nudity and drunkenness.

Kistler tightened the rules. Rather than leaving it up to clients whether to shelter their old pals, she stuck them with a policy barring overnight guests. She worked with landlords to hold clients to the terms of their leases. Two who didn't left the program. One ended up transferring to a different apartment building. (The program now has clients at six locations in Colorado Springs.)

Arni Barker, 57, has been at Greg's complex since September. Born in the Springs, she worked in health care for more than 30 years, she says, mainly here and in Chicago and Dallas. In 1997, she says, after a career seeing too many people maimed, burned or killed, she had a nervous breakdown.

She and her husband held things together the next six years with her odd jobs and his work as a land surveyor. But their lives really started coming apart in 2003 when her husband was injured. The couple wound up spending long months in one particularly seedy spot on West Colorado Avenue.

"If the police aren't there once a day," she says, "you call to see if they're mad at you."

Barker describes motel life as a trap. Though there's no security deposit, it's easy to get behind paying $150 a week for a small, dingy room. When her husband walked out in late 2007, Barker promptly found herself living on the streets with her Lhasa Apso.

Truly homeless for the first time, Barker slept under bridges, often huddled with alcoholics to stay warm. Alone in a park one night in January, she says, she was raped. Ashamed and doubtful she'd receive any help, she didn't bother reporting it to police.

Lines in her face deepen as she talks about the misperception that she or anyone else on the streets chose to be there.

"I never talked to one person — not one — who was homeless because he wanted to be," she says.

Now, she praises the program and Holmes for his efforts to expand it. But she thinks the scale of the problem is overwhelming.

"He could probably get a thousand people off the streets," Barker says, "and there would still be homelessness."

What's the holdup?

Spreading Housing First clients among different buildings has a lot to do with public relations. Few people would want to see a building near them fill up with people who have long been homeless.

Though Kistler thinks her clients can positively impact the community, that hasn't yet happened at the place she wants to put Patch. For now, he will be one of only three clients in the building.

During his visit, Patch notes that one of his future neighbors, blasting music with the door wide open, appears have a bar set up inside. But Kistler later shrugs off the suggestion that those surroundings could put him at a disadvantage, arguing that Patch and other clients will help her replicate what has happened at the building where Barker lives.

"This experiment has worked well," Kistler says.

Other experiments, perhaps, need fine-tuning. Ideally, the placement process would work like this: Housing First would document Patch's history of homelessness, mental illness and substance abuse, and submit paperwork to the city. The city would verify the paperwork and approve the grant money, giving a green light to the Colorado Springs Housing Authority to check out the apartment and make sure it meets federal standards.

It didn't happen like that. The first delays were about documentation: Since the city controls the federal grant, it must also police federal rules requiring a local match for all federal dollars given out. If Housing First clients receive $120,000 worth of housing assistance, Kistler has to document that they receive an equal amount in services from her and other local agencies.

That wasn't happening earlier this year, says Valorie Jordan, manager of the city's Housing Development Division. So the program was put on hold. With changes at Housing First and new procedures being used, she says, she's again approving new clients.

The delays now are about different paperwork. At one point, Kistler predicts Patch will move in by June 15, but she backs off after learning the housing authority, which is distinct from the city, won't have enough time to inspect the unit and sign required documents.

Gene Montoya, director of the housing authority, rejects the idea that his agency is holding things up. The afternoon of June 11, he says the paperwork is not yet there.

"If everything's ready to go," Montoya says, "we're ready for him."

Across town the same evening, standing in front of his brother's house, Patch is less concerned about the delays than with getting on with his life.

On his meds, he's lost his "obsession" with drinking, but now he tries to resist the desire to do nothing, to hole up in his shed and sleep away the days. He goes on walks, hangs out at coffee shops and visits friends, homeless and not. He even ran into his friend Terrance, who's talked with Holmes about getting into the program.

The future, once he's settled, holds some allure. He's planning to take a course in budgeting so he can manage his small savings account. He's considering buying some furniture or even a scooter to get him around town. He's also thinking about vocational education, though he's uncertain what kind of job he'd like to do.

Patch has been through a lot, but he doesn't spend much time thinking about the past or the mental illness he believes put him on a treacherous path.

"Whatever it was, it kept me from succeeding in life," he says.

Asked to speculate on how things might have been different if resources to help him had been available when he was a teenager, Patch declines, saying, "I don't think I will ever know."

Though a nickname can be hard to set aside, he's also trying to get past being known as "Patch."

"Ken is better," he says. "I used to be Patch, but not no more."

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