- L'Aura Montgomery
- City Councilman Jerry Heimlicher shows his idea, a meter for donations to the homeless.
Bob Holmes stares out the window of Boulder Street Coffee Roasters and shakes his head.
"What the hell's wrong with this guy?" Holmes asks. "He's so freakin' wasted."
The man outside is young and intoxicated. In a heavy coat that is blatantly inappropriate for the balmy weather, the man, head sandwiched between his knees, looks ready to curl up and take a nap.
A fire truck and ambulance arrive, and the inebriated guy offers a raised middle finger, a gesture of thanks to whoever reported him.
Soon, this man and others like him can thank Holmes, the director of Homeward Pikes Peak, an umbrella organization for the city's homeless services, for something even more special: identification cards that will keep track of the free services they use.
Homeless folks might also want to prepare a "thank you" (be it sincere or sarcastic) for City Councilman Jerry Heimlicher. Heimlicher's working to install red parking meters around the city's center for spare change. The meters would be an alternative to giving to panhandlers, with all donations going to charities that serve the homeless.
The idea for bar-coded ID cards was a large part of the five-year plan to "house every citizen" that Homeward Pikes Peak unveiled in 2003. It took until this week, using a $20,000 grant from the Downtown Partnership and the Business Improvement District, for Holmes to start phasing in the program.
"We've really taken our time trying to work out the bugs," he says.
Holmes is targeting such popular spots as the Salvation Army shelter and the Marian House Soup Kitchen at the start. Eventually, he wants all the city's 40 or 50 homeless-centric organizations to be in the system. It's just a matter of finding money for the technology and then setting it up.
Holmes says the IDs will prevent the homeless from having to fill out a ton of paperwork every time they access a new service.
The IDs also will let organizations know which services are being used, and perhaps more importantly, which aren't. Ideally, the system could ensure nearly every homeless person has a case manager, someone who helps individuals access appropriate services to get them off the streets.
In rare cases, the cards could be used to blacklist a person (such as a deadbeat dad fleeing child-support payments, or a wanted felon) from services.
"That's an infinitesimally small percentage of the population," Holmes says.
Local homeless advocate Steve Handen says ID cards might prove worthy, but he wonders if funds might be better spent on building new housing or developing more mental-health programs. Some of the homeless he works with worry that information from the cards will be passed on to police (Holmes says it won't), or that they'll need a different form of ID to get the card.
"I don't want to rain on anybody's parade," Handen says. "[But] the services that people need are not in place, and to say that they need this computer system to find out what homeless people need is a bit disingenuous."
Handen also says new meters won't keep him from giving his change directly to homeless people, many of whom have given up on getting off the streets.
"These new sociological theories come and go," he says. "Some have been very good and some have gone by the wayside."
Handen remembers a time when cities were scrambling to hand out free, clean needles to drug users. That's not quite so hip anymore. Of course, he says, that shouldn't discourage advocates from being creative. It's just that the best way to help the homeless may be to simply ask them what services they want or need. Handen also thinks there has to be some recognition that not everyone wants a complete change of lifestyle.
That view isn't discouraging Heimlicher, whose meters (an idea lifted from Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper) are coming to a sidewalk near you. The councilman is looking for a source of free used meters, seeking volunteers to paint and install the meters, and talking to businesses about placing meters in front of their stores.
"It's going to make me feel good if I can look in the mirror and say I helped someone get off the streets, or helped a hundred people get off the streets," Heimlicher says.
The meter idea is two-pronged, encouraging people to give more money to charities while discouraging panhandling. Heimlicher says studies show money given directly to homeless people usually goes directly to fuel addictions to drugs or alcohol.
The chronic 15 percent
Heimlicher isn't the first to notice the problem. The city passed an ordinance in recent years that made "aggressive panhandling" illegal. And the Downtown Partnership pays off-duty cops to walk around on downtown streets with the hope of discouraging lawbreakers, including panhandlers.
"We've had little kids scared, and that has to cease," Downtown Partnership executive director Beth Kosley says.
What all this means to homeless people probably depends on what drove them to the streets in the first place. Holmes estimates that 85 percent or more of the Springs' homeless population are crisis cases. These folks usually just need a boost a place to stay, food, maybe some job training to get back on their feet and be productive again.
The other 15 percent are chronically homeless and often face larger problems, such as drug and alcohol addiction and mental-health issues. Some want to be helped off the streets; others don't.
These are the people who tend to panhandle, dodge case management and use your spare dollar for a can of Bud, Holmes says. They also tend to drain taxpayer money via emergency rooms, jails and police.
Everyone agrees that tracking the chronically homeless or discouraging panhandling won't solve the problem. But Holmes thinks those efforts could be part of a solution along with other programs, such as Housing First and Harbor House, which offer housing and counseling to the chronically homeless.
Those programs aren't for everyone, says Jeannine Holt, executive director of Harbor House Collaborative (which runs both programs). Standards are in place, and some wait months before they qualify for housing. If they qualify.
"We spend time building a relationship, because when we take them into the program, we require them to accept aggressive case management," Holt says.
Handen says the reality of such restrictions on existing programs means more services are needed.
"There are a lot of people that have been through every program that God and country have to offer," Handen says, "and they don't work."