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November 1, 2012
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Study looks at homelessness for three counties

GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado - Area social service agencies tentatively agreed on Wednesday to focus their attentions on two groups in the regional homeless population - military veterans and youths.

Officials stressed that they would still be working with other parts of the homeless population, including the chronically homeless and the elderly.

The conclusion to concentrate on veterans and youths was reached at the end of a two-hour meeting of about 40 social services officials, nonprofit leaders and others. They met to discuss the recently completed Tri-County Vulnerability Index.

The index is a study of the homeless and close-to-homeless population in Garfield, Eagle and Pitkin counties conducted over the summer months of 2012 by social services agencies and several nonprofit groups.

It yielded no firm numbers for the region's homeless population, but officials believe the numbers are growing among the elderly, the young and other adults, and that people's circumstances are worsening.

Marian McDonough, regional director of Catholic Charities, said a "point in time" count of homeless people in the region is slated for January 2013.

State Sen. Gail Schwartz, D-Snowmass Village, noted that her district covers 11 counties, from Basalt to the San Luis Valley, and has "probably the wealthiest, and probably the poorest people in the state."

She pledged her support in dealing with homeless issues, but noted that the state budget is facing massive financial shortfalls every year.

"I just want you to understand, these are hard choices when it comes to the budget," she said.

Seated at the back of the room during the meeting were more than a half-dozen youths, mostly students from the Yampah Mountain High School in Glenwood Springs.

One Yampah student, Zachariah Jones, said as many as 10 percent of the student body are homeless at one point or another.

Pointing to his fiancee, also a Yampah student, he said, "Not a month ago, we were both completely on the street."

He said the school has served as a kind of surrogate family for him and others.

"We wouldn't even be here now, having our voice heard by the community, if it wasn't for our school," Jones said.

No veterans spoke at the meeting, but several officials related stories of veterans whose homeless status manifested in curious ways.

Gary Sanford, advisor to Gov. John Hickenlooper on homeless issues, told of one homeless veteran whose visits to the hospital in Cortez comprised 10 percent of the emergency room resources in a year.

In Grand Junction, Sanford said, one veteran lacking health insurance went to a local emergency room more than 40 times in one year.

He said there are an estimated 3,000 homeless veterans in Colorado. Medical information obtained from interviews with 1,300 of them indicated that ER visits are costing Front Range hospitals more than $2.2 million in unreimbursed costs annually.

The meeting, aside from revealing the results of the study, was a chance for some to express their frustration with current circumstances regarding homelessness.

"There are people out there who don't understand the issue," said Lauren Mbereko of Response, an Aspen-based nonprofit that assists survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault.

"There are people who think, it's so simple, just make more jobs," Mbereko said, attributing such thinking to "ignorance, and fear" among those who would rather ignore the problem of homelessness than deal with it.

"Homelessness is a symptom of other issues," said Sanford.

According to the survey, conducted locally by social service agencies and nonprofit partners in the region, those other issues include being raised in foster care, spending time in jail, mental health or medical problems, abusing alcohol or other drugs, and being attacked after becoming homeless.

The poll showed that nearly 60 percent of respondents have been in jail, usually for petty offenses and minor crimes, and 45 percent admitted to abusing alcohol or other drugs.

Among the families interviewed, the single greatest factors leading to homelessness were bad credit, loss of a job, or inability to afford paying rent, according to the survey results.

High among the problems raised at the meeting was a lack of affordable housing.

McDonough said the Catholic Archdiocese of Denver maintains several transitional housing facilities in the region.

But the stock of housing is far less than the need, she said. And even if more buildings were available for temporary housing, "the ongoing operating cost is what has really been the major roadblock."

Pointing out that a regional homelessness coalition meets regularly to work on the problem, McDonough told those in the room on Wednesday, "We need your ideas, and we need your involvement."

jcolson@postindependent.com


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The Post Independent Updated Nov 1, 2012 01:15AM Published Nov 1, 2012 01:15AM Copyright 2012 The Post Independent. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.