City seeks to get handle on local homeless situation
An unsuccessful attempt to land a job in Denver recently while working to line up benefits through the Veterans Administration ultimately landed Paul Wilm back on the streets of Glenwood Springs Monday night.
It’s the place Wilm has called “home” since 2009 when he first came to Glenwood after a divorce, and amid dealing with lingering trauma from three years of active military duty with the Army National Guard, including a tour in Baghdad, Iraq.
But “home” is a relative term for the 37-year-old veteran, since most of his time here has been spent living out of his vehicle while trying to get his life back together.
Initially, he found work with a local trucking company and started taking classes at Colorado Mountain College.
“I was having pretty good success at CMC, and really enjoyed living here,” Wilm said.
But he lost his job in 2011 with no separation wages and has been drifting in and out of town between stints at VA facilities in Florida and Grand Junction, often with disappointing results.
“I really have nowhere else to go, so I keep coming back,” Wilm said. “The hot springs keep me here, and it’s the best melting pot culturally of any place I’ve found. That’s one of the things I missed from the Army is the diverse ethnicity and different cultures.”
Homeless concerns voiced
Wilm’s is just one of the many and varied personal stories within the local homeless population.
It’s a community of people which, by most accounts, does include a fair number of long-time locals who have fallen on hard luck.
But a large number of transients come and go, and some seasonal drifters who happen to pass through during the summer end up staying.
A handful of locally based nonprofit, religious-based relief agencies provide services for the homeless, ranging from emergency financial, medical, food and travel assistance to a day center and even an overnight shelter during the winter months for those who agree to play by the rules.
Recently, though, concerns have been expressed to city officials, mostly from the tourism sector, that the availability of services has made Glenwood Springs a haven for the transient homeless.
Last week, Glenwood City Council members voiced some of those same concerns, suggesting the city’s willingness to help fund those organizations may require some rules as to who specifically is being served.
Council approved the latest round of discretionary grants, ranging from $500 to $2,000, for four separate agencies, Feed My Sheep, Salvation Army, Lift-Up and Catholic Charities. But it was with the caveat that representatives from those organizations meet with council after the first of the year to discuss their policies and procedures.
“If they had to make some decisions from their pocketbooks, maybe we can get them to change their policies,” Councilman Matt Steckler said.
Steckler and others on the council offered that, while the city should support services for locals who are in need, the open-door, all-comers policies may need to change if the city is to continue to provide support.
“I would like to see these organizations begin to think about how they distribute this money,” Councilman Todd Leahy said.
Added Steckler, “It does sound heartless, and maybe this is not the right time of year, but we do need to have this conversation.”
Mayor Leo McKinney said in a follow-up interview that it’s a good opportunity to bring the conversation to the forefront.
“We do hear a fair amount of regular complaints from our visiting public around what’s going on in the Seventh Street area in particular,” McKinney said of the frequent gathering of transients in that area, particularly during the summer.
“It seems there is a sentiment out there that this is a good place to go if you’re down on your luck,” McKinney said. “It is something that’s going on that people are talking about, and we need to start talking about it publicly.”
Demand hasn’t subsided
It’s a conversation that directors of those organizations say they welcome. At the same time, the demand for services across the board, from homeless assistance to poverty relief, continues to go up.
Feed My Sheep, which runs a day center in downtown Glenwood Springs that serves the local homeless population, as well as an overnight shelter during the winter months, has seen more than 11,000 visits so far this year, said executive director Karen Peppers.
“Usually, we’re around 9,200 by the end of November,” she said.
The day center, which provides a place for people to come in and clean up, change clothes, gather necessities and make phone calls to try to line up work, normally sees around 40-45 visitors per day. That number was up to more than 50 per day this past summer, Peppers said.
“Some days it was just overwhelming,” she said.
But, as long as people play by the rules, such as no drinking, drugs or rowdy behavior, and as long as they meet the expectation to try to better their situation, all are welcome.
“We take anybody who comes through our door, as long as they do what we require of them,” she said.
Some in the transient homeless population “don’t like our rules,” Peppers said. “And as a citizen, it does appall me to see people out there begging and bothering our residents and visitors.”
Feed My Sheep’s overnight shelter, which operates out of a former church building in West Glenwood, opened for the season two weeks ago to a steady flow of about two dozen people per night, she said.
That number typically goes up as the temperatures fall, Peppers said.
Lift-Up is an interfaith organization that provides a variety of assistance programs including a food pantry, special holiday meals for Thanksgiving and Christmas, and the Extended Table soup kitchens in Glenwood Springs and Rifle.
Lift-Up Executive Director Kimberly Loving said the agency has seen steady numbers over the past year for its food assistance programs, including 916 families signed up to receive holiday meal baskets.
“That has stayed pretty consistent in recent years,” she said. “Where we have seen a tremendous increase is the number of meals served at Extended Table.”
Through the end of October, the two soup kitchen locations had served nearly 16,000 meals. That’s about the same number as for the entire year in 2013, Loving said.
Year-to-date through October, a total of 32,140 clients (duplicated numbers) have received services from Lift-Up, and 30,894 sacks of groceries were distributed.
As for the city’s concerns about serving the homeless population in Glenwood Springs, “we don’t have any closed doors,” she said.
“If they are not getting a hot meal, what does that lead to?,” Loving asks. “More crime? We do have an open-door policy, and we don’t discriminate against anyone. Nobody needs to go hungry in this country.”
Karen Lee is the area caseworker for Salvation Army, which provides a variety of relief assistance including rent and utility assistance, medical assistance and a few services that could be utilized by those who are homeless.
“One of our main goals is to try to prevent homelessness,” Lee said of the majority of Salvation Army’s services. “It’s a lot more expensive to deal with people’s situations when they’ve reached that point.”
Lee said she has heard the concerns about the local homeless population. But if someone shows up on her office doorstep who happens to be homeless and needs help, she said she can’t turn a blind eye.
“It is important to have educated discussions about this issue,” Lee said. “We’re in the business of trying to help people … that’s my role. A lot of times I have to do what I can the best way I can figure out in that moment.
“Poverty isn’t exactly polite,” she said. “It can be ugly.”
The local Salvation Army office served more than 1,700 people (also duplicated numbers) through its fiscal year that ended in September. That’s down from a caseload of 2,100 in fiscal 2013, Lee said.
“People are doing a little bit better, and I think there are more jobs,” she said.
Some of that decrease also had to do with an office location change and more limited hours of service, she said.
Not for everyone
For his part, Wilm said he does make use of some of the assistance services provided in Glenwood Springs, including the Extended Table meals.
But that’s also been part of his own personal dilemma, he said.
In working with the VA to determine the appropriate benefits and treatment for his symptoms associated with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Wilm said he often gets steered toward Christian-based assistance agencies.
But as a practitioner of the Bahai’i Faith, he said he feels alienated and has been subjected to some group’s attempts to “indoctrinate” him into the Christian religion via their rules and policies.
“From my own personal experience I feel like a lot more services could be provided at much less expense to taxpayers than we have now without the religious associations,” Wilm said.
On a positive note, Wilm reported shortly after this interview that his war-time pension came through and that he was planning to seek out vocational rehabilitation.
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