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Tough love

Colorado Springs wants to force homeless people to carry ID cards or forgo services. Will this get them off the streets?


Dont give em money, give em a card: Colorado Springs - business owners and residents are being urged to hand - out cards telling them where to call and go for help - instead of money to panhandlers. - BRUCE ELLIOTT
  • Bruce Elliott
  • Dont give em money, give em a card: Colorado Springs business owners and residents are being urged to hand out cards telling them where to call and go for help instead of money to panhandlers.

With a healthy laugh and declining health, Delfin Carillo is the kind of person Bob Holmes wants to rescue from the deprivation and desperation of the streets.

Relaxing under the shade of a tree in downtown's Acacia Park, Carillo, a 53-year-old homeless man, says he doesn't want the kind of help Holmes is offering. He's enjoying his life of listening to the radio in the park, meeting interesting people and camping under bushes at night.

"I'm homeless, and that's what I choose to be," he said. "I don't need any help right now."

The Vietnam War veteran says he doesn't have many more years to live because he has cirrhosis of the liver from years of drinking. He receives free meals from a soup kitchen and occasionally goes to a shelter to shower or escape the rough weather.

"You can't starve in this town," he said.

But under a controversial plan, Holmes, who heads Homeward Pikes Peak, the agency that coordinates the region's homeless services, soon will force homeless people like Carillo to carry identification cards. If they refuse, they will risk being cut off from free meals, shelters, bus tokens, job training, clothing and other things that Holmes says many of the city's estimated 1,250 homeless people abuse to perpetuate what he calls carefree, arrogant lifestyles.

Holmes calls it "tough love."

"There will be some people that will find it hard, but I think the logic is there," he said. "You need to examine your conscience when you 'help' a person. You give a panhandler two bucks, it makes you feel warm and fuzzy and good, [but] that enables him or her to go buy a pint of whatever and continue to lead an abusive lifestyle."

Holmes' required ID card program is part of a larger, City Council-endorsed blueprint to "house every citizen in Colorado Springs" by 2007. The blueprint contains a series of short statements on ways to combat homelessness in the region.

Among those statements is a call for more affordable housing. But with little money -- either from locally generated seed money or by way of federal or state grants -- this city's blueprint is in stark contrast to an ambitious plan to combat homelessness unveiled last month in Denver.

At the heart of Denver's comprehensive, $122 million plan is a bid to create roughly 3,200 units of affordable housing to help low-wage earners and the working poor -- people who otherwise could not afford to put a roof over their heads. Denver's model was unveiled with huge fanfare, as the mayor, the city's business leaders and even its tourism officials weighed in with overwhelming support.

Here in Colorado Springs, Holmes acknowledges there is little money to take such an approach to ending homelessness.

Gambling away a tax return

Since his hire as Homeward Pikes Peak's first and only employee in 2003, Holmes, a former school district superintendent from New York, has driven intense public debate about the homeless. Last year, he pushed City Council to outlaw all panhandling downtown, arguing without statistical evidence that most homeless people spend their money on alcohol and drugs.

He also has praised rigorous enforcement during a crackdown by police between Thanksgiving and New Year's Eve last year, when 49 homeless people were arrested for minor crimes, such as panhandling. Holmes says the effort, which cost police $30,000, helped satisfy the downtown business owners who long have complained that homeless people drive customers away.

Homeless people, he says, shouldn't be committing crimes, but instead ought to be working closely with case managers to get off the streets. They are where they are because they've made poor choices, like gambling away a tax return instead of paying the bills, or quitting school.

"Somebody makes a decision not to finish high school: 'To hell with it, I can get a job, blah, blah, blah,'" Holmes said. "People make decisions about sex, to have unprotected sex and to breed children that they have absolutely no intent to nurture. It's a terrible thing to bring a kid into the world like that. It's incredibly irresponsible. It's a bad decision."

Critics, including Cyndy Kulp, a longtime advocate for the homeless and agitator for affordable housing, wonder whether Holmes' tough stance is right for the man who oversees the major agencies in Colorado Springs that help the homeless.

"It's that dyed-in-the-wool conservatism and individualism that's so common in El Paso County," she said. "There's a lot of talk about people taking responsibility. I don't think that kind of harsh, judgmental approach works.

"You don't shame people out of being homeless. People don't want to be homeless. I don't know where this idea comes from, that being homeless and getting free services is some kind of picnic. It's not."

The Washington, D.C.-based National Coalition for the Homeless also has voiced its opposition to forcing homeless people to flash IDs before they can get services. Clearwater, Fla., has incorporated a similar program.

"When it's a plan to require all the homeless people in the city to carry an ID card, nobody objects," coalition spokesman Michael Stoops said. "But if it was aimed at another class of people, the rich or an ethnic minority, for example, it would never fly. It's clearly discrimination against the poor."

Tracking homeless people

Two homeless men sleep in Antlers Park during a rally - to bring attention to the need for affordable housing in - Colorado Springs. - SEAN CAYTON
  • Sean Cayton
  • Two homeless men sleep in Antlers Park during a rally to bring attention to the need for affordable housing in Colorado Springs.

Numerous groups already have signed onto the ID program in Colorado Springs, which will be launched later this year or early next year and which Holmes maintains will help caseworkers identify those who need help.

The New Hope Shelter, which provides overnight beds, Ecumenical Social Ministries, which provides numerous services to the poor, and Marian House Soup Kitchen are among about a dozen organizations that have agreed to be part of a pilot for the card system.

With few exceptions, Holmes says every homeless person in the region will have to carry a photo identification card from Homeward Pikes Peak -- or risk being turned away from places that offer services.

The ID cards will track homeless people electronically, as they move from service provider to service provider in order to eliminate the replication of intake forms for the homeless and their providers.

Holmes explains it this way: "Welcome to Colorado Springs. You've been down on your luck -- go ahead and have some meals on us. But we'd like to know who you are. We'd kind of like to, if you're going to stay, know what your plan is to regain self-sufficiency if you get off the street. In addition, we want to know how we can best help."

For those who refuse to participate, the doors simply will shut, Holmes says.

"When I see the guy who says, 'Blank you, I'm not going to give you my name,' I always wonder about that," Holmes said. "If that person chooses to leave town, rather than to say who he is, so be it ... after that initial meal or two, [that person] will not be partaking in services in Colorado Springs.

"The whole concept there is that we have scarce resources, and we need to allocate those resources to the people who are willing to try to get themselves back to self-sufficiency. That's what our mission is. Our mission is not just to hand out food or to hand out Levi's."

Dumpster diving for food

Holmes also wants Colorado Springs police to consider a proposal in which police officers would confiscate the cards of homeless people who break the law, rather than charge them with a crime. Offenders' ID cards would be turned over to case workers, who then would counsel lawbreakers in order to change their behavior.

It would help lower the chances that a person will get a criminal record as a result of being homeless, he says.

But Deputy Police Chief Dave Felice, who is the assigned liaison between the department and Homeward Pikes Peak, wasn't certain the plan ever could be implemented. He cited numerous concerns.

"You could 'What if?' this thing to death," he said.

For one, giving officers the discretion to take somebody's ID card could be viewed as a form of unfair punishment, he says.

"Now all of a sudden, they can't eat," he said. "That's problematic for the offender."

The ID cards were supposed to have been in place already, but have been delayed for nearly a year due to technical problems. When the glitches finally are ironed out, agencies in the city will be in compliance with a new U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development requirement to track the homeless, Holmes says.

"With the reporting requirements we have from HUD, [the ID cards are] probably the only way to do it," Holmes said.

But the identification cards aren't required, according to HUD, which notes that paper or other methods could be used to track homeless people.

"There is no federal mandate for such a system," said John Dibella, HUD's acting regional director in Denver.

Charlie Adam, a 58-year-old homeless man who has heard only rumors about the plan, says he'll resort to Dumpster diving for food before he'll submit to being tracked every time he wants to eat a free lunch.

"The idea stinks," Adam said. "If you're going to help somebody, you're not going to ask for their ID."

Adam and the other homeless people interviewed for this story declined to have their photographs taken because they worried they would be targeted for harassment or retribution.

Marvin Rickard is a 50-year-old disabled man who lives in an EconoLodge near downtown and visits the Marian House Soup Kitchen because he regularly doesn't have enough money for food. He says he just doesn't trust local agencies to collect information on him.

"It's like 1984," Rickard said in a reference to George Orwell's novel about the erosion of personal privacy in an electronic society. "It makes you an illegal tramp if you don't have a card. That makes you nothing but a tramp."

Homeward Pikes Peaks Bob Holmes says some homeless - people are arrogant. - BRUCE ELLIOTT
  • Bruce Elliott
  • Homeward Pikes Peaks Bob Holmes says some homeless people are arrogant.

Rickard doesn't consider himself homeless, but under the plan he, too, will be asked to carry an ID card to eat at the soup kitchen, Holmes said.

Supporters in the trenches

While wary of such opinions, Bill Sisterson, who runs the 210-bed New Hope Shelter south of downtown for the Salvation Army, is ready to implement the plan.

"It is an idea that I think can work," he said.

Sisterson is impressed especially by the idea that homeless people will be helped because they won't have to fill out new paperwork every time they visit a new agency. He also says the plan will cut down on fraud.

Joe Vazquez, executive director of the Springs Rescue Mission, which provides transitional housing and career training to homeless people, says the ID cards will make homeless people more accountable.

"Nobody has a desire to limit or deny services," he said. "The goal is to end the abuse of the system."

Yet Vazquez, Sisterson and others also express reservations about how the plan will be implemented.

Ultimately it is up to the agencies to decide if someone will be turned away, and Vazquez and Sisterson know that as many as one in four people living on the streets is estimated to suffer from a mental illness, such as paranoid schizophrenia. They want to make sure these people are not turned away if they refuse to participate, and they concede that they don't know exactly how they will bend the rules for such people, since it takes a qualified expert to diagnose mental problems.

There also are other problems that could linger. There will be no way of knowing if the name a person provides is real, Holmes admits.

"We're not looking at 100 percent foolproof," Holmes said. "This is not NASA."

He says that as the ID cards are implemented, however, flaws can be overcome, given careful and constant review.

Affordable afterthoughts

Holmes works with dozens of organizations that serve the homeless. He has a great deal of control when it comes to identifying priorities and seeking funding from federal and other government agencies that fund programs for the homeless.

Last year, for example, Colorado Springs agencies received $1.1 million in federal dollars to help the homeless. That's up from the roughly $600,000 a year prior to Holmes' arrival.

"Bob has done an amazing job raising funds," said Anne Beer of the local United Way chapter, an organization that works closely with Holmes.

But homeless advocate Kulp, who founded the now-defunct Housing Advocacy Coalition in the early 1990s, raises what to her has been an essential --and still missing -- link to solving homelessness in Colorado Springs: ensuring a market of affordable homes.

Kulp contrasts Colorado Springs' blueprint to Denver's 10-year plan to end homelessness. Officials in Denver, she says, essentially have taken responsibility for urban renewal and pro-business policies that led to a massive decline in affordable housing in recent decades, exacerbating the problem of homelessness.

The same thing happened in Colorado Springs, Kulp says. As one example, she points to the razing of more than a dozen small houses southwest of downtown in recent years to make way for Confluence Park.

"The city has never really had any policies to replace affordable housing or to prevent the destruction of it -- which is even cheaper than starting from scratch," Kulp said.

Colorado Springs' blueprint to end homelessness includes only a vague goal of creating more affordable housing, Kulp noted, rather than specific numbers, as in Denver's plan.

Holmes says he's not sure exactly what affordable housing goals will be reached here.

City officials only now are getting a clear picture on how much affordable housing Colorado Springs has. Such an assessment would have been helpful in 2003 when the blueprint was being written, admits Valorie Jordan, manager of the Colorado Springs housing and community development division.

But the plan didn't initially envision taking stock of housing, she says.

Bill Sisterson, who heads the citys largest overnight - shelter, backs the plan to require homeless people to - carry ID cards. - MICHAEL DE YOANNA
  • Michael de Yoanna
  • Bill Sisterson, who heads the citys largest overnight shelter, backs the plan to require homeless people to carry ID cards.

The count is necessary to determine the amount of housing and money that will be needed if the city is going to house every citizen by 2007.

So far, the city has identified 831 affordable housing units in Colorado Springs. Most of them are regular, market-rate apartments scattered around the city, available for roughly $400 to $650 a month.

"What this will do is give us an idea of where we need affordable housing," Jordan said, adding that it was too early to know if the affordable housing now on the city's radar was enough to reduce homelessness.

There is one large-scale plan currently taking shape to increase affordable housing, Vazquez says. The Springs Rescue Mission is seeking to collaborate with other agencies in the purchase of a motel property that would provide roughly 100 rooms for homeless people.

The city itself provides no specifically earmarked funds to support the plan, but contributes about $236,000 a year to general housing programs.

"We're going to keep doing what we need to do to take small bites out of the problem," Holmes said. "You know what? This five-year plan is coming along OK. It's very modest. I know that the city is really strapped for money."

Even though his blueprint touts providing housing for every citizen in Colorado Springs by 2007, Holmes won't issue a guarantee. "We're going to try to make housing units available for every citizen who needs one," he said. "Will we succeed? Maybe, maybe not."

Cutbacks 'immoral'

Most homeless people are unseen, Holmes says. Many of them are caring for children while holding onto low-paying jobs, struggling to get an apartment as they eke by with the help of a shelter bed or a friend's couch.

The chronically homeless -- those who might be seen lingering on street corners or sleeping in a park in the middle of the day -- are the most visible. They make up only 15 percent of the city's 1,250 homeless, but are an expensive group to help.

The main federal lifeline for them, Shelter Plus Care, allocated $800,000 to Colorado Springs in 2004 to help pay for substance abuse programs, shelter and job training. That amount would get only 25 chronically homeless people off the streets.

It is an important program, given the few local resources dedicated to the problem and the burden the homeless place on local emergency rooms, Holmes says.

This year, however, the program was axed by 80 percent. It means that roughly 20 chronically homeless people won't receive help. It also means that one of the few specific numerical goals in the blueprint -- providing housing for 50 chronically homeless people -- is in peril.

This drop in funding is part of a trend in which Congress favors big tax cuts alongside large reductions in federal spending on social and health services. Recently, Medicaid, a program that provides health care for the poorest Americans, was slashed by $10 billion.

While many political leaders justify the cuts as a means to control the deficit, state and local governments are left deciding whether to fill the gap or to make their own cuts, according to Colorado Coalition for the Homeless Executive Director John Parvensky. He calls Congress' decision to implement tax cuts alongside the cutbacks immoral.

"The United States is on spiritual life support," he recently told social workers at a convention addressing homeless issues in Denver. "If you look at the budget, you'll see that one hand gives while the other takes away."

Cuts have affected Colorado Springs agencies to varying degrees thus far. But there is a shared sense of trepidation regarding the future.

Jordan breathed a sigh of relief when Congress decided against chopping more than $3 million from the city's share of this year's housing funding. In the end, her department weathered a $172,000 reduction. After talking about making cuts to housing programs, the city stepped in to fill the gap.

Jordan could not predict if the city would continue to fill such gaps in the future.

Long waits

Meanwhile, other agencies have rolled back their help to the homeless. For example, the only mental health clinic in the region, citing state and federal cuts, is turning patients away unless they are in the midst of a crisis. Pikes Peak Mental Health essentially is unable to reach out to homeless people with mental illnesses, says spokeswoman Cynthia Zupanec.

And funding for substance abuse programs in Colorado is among the worst in the nation, with long waits to get into local programs.

Yet even this instability in the homeless support system hasn't lessened resolve to guide the homeless into that system, using the ID card program.

"If we continue to do what we're doing now, you're going to have the same results," Jordan said.

For Rickard, it is difficult to imagine being the kind of person Homeward Pikes Peak wants him to be.

He says he's not hurting anyone, and that he has a right to use his government disability money to rent a room at the EconoLodge.

The Marian House Soup Kitchen has the best coffee in town, even if it is free, he says. His voice is gravelly and his speech is slurred because of a head injury he suffered in an automobile accident several decades ago.

"For me, it is an accomplishment just to be out here living every day," he said. "Isn't that enough for you?"

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