Homeless panel seeks to educate and offer solutions
One idea being tossed around by some downtown Glenwood Springs business owners to address the needs of the homeless is to start a “wishing well” program that would educate those in need and the larger community about the various assistance services that are available locally.
“We want people to know that we’re not just a town that relies on a tourism base and is a great place to come and visit, but that we are also a town that cares,” Solomon Liston, a Glenwood native and business consultant, said at a community forum Monday night to address issues around the local homeless population.
Liston suggests that business and civic leaders get together to erect donation receptacles at key places around town where panhandling is common.
The idea is for people who might be inclined to help out in some way to give to the larger need, instead of giving “to an open hand,” he said.
By approaching it that way, Liston said there’s an education component for those who could utilize those services.
It’s also a way for residents and visitors alike to learn about those organizations and in turn support them as well, he said.
It was an idea that resonated with the more than 100 people who attended the forum, including representatives from some of the human service agencies who sat on a discussion panel.
The forum, billed as a “Community discussion on the effect of the growing homeless/vagrant population,” was organized by Glenwood Springs City Council and the ad hoc Partners for Glenwood Springs.
The panel format was designed for residents to learn about the many complex issues around homelessness, who constitutes the homeless in Glenwood Springs, and where there are gaps in services.
“Yeah, there are drug users,” Kimberly Loving, executive director of LIFT-UP, said in response to concerns about a certain segment of the homeless population that is more prone to “behaving badly,” as one of the business members of the panel stated it.
LIFT-UP operates the Extended Table soup kitchen and food pantries in Glenwood Springs and throughout Garfield County.
“But they are human beings,” she said. “Maybe they have made the choice to be homeless, but something has happened to them to put them in that situation.”
The free soup kitchen that’s available at the Glenwood Methodist Church on weeknights, in particular, is a no-questions-asked program for anyone who wants to come.
“We are just there to give them a hot meal, which is very, very important for these people,” Loving said.
Extended Table in Glenwood Springs alone served 16,000 meals last year, and to date this year has already served 11,000 meals, she said.
Each of the service agencies represented on the panel Monday has seen an increase in their numbers related to the homeless, including the Feed My Sheep Ministries, Mindsprings Mental Health, Garfield County Human Services and Valley View Hospital.
Valley View has gone from admitting nine people per month who identified themselves as homeless in 2013, to 15 per month this year, said longtime VVH physician Dr. Al Saliman.
In general, the number of patients being admitted for psychiatric, alcohol and drug addiction diagnoses is up 10 to 20 percent this year, he said.
The numbers are increasing as well at the Feed My Sheep day center and wintertime overnight shelter, said director Karen Peppers.
“The point is, we have a problem,” Peppers said of each agency’s efforts to address some part of that problem. “Feed My Sheep is about making sure our local homeless are taken care of.”
The typical client at the day center ranges from someone who has been recently employed and had a place to live, but has fallen on hard times, to the steady flow of “transients, wanderers, nomads, whatever you want to call them,” who happen through Glenwood, Peppers said.
One of Feed My Sheep’s regular clients, Terry Jackson, turned some heads when he suggested it might help someone like himself find steady work if more employers were “felony friendly.”
“All of us have made mistakes,” Jackson said of people who maybe ran afoul of the law early in life but are honestly trying to turn their lives around.
If there were a program to give those people a second chance to prove themselves and not have their criminal background be an issue, “I think a lot of us would take that opportunity,” Jackson said.
As it is, he said he and others like him are often relegated to low-paying temporary work that does little to get them out of their situation.
Without help from organizations like Feed My Sheep, they would be in an even worse situation, Jackson said.
Glenwood Springs Chamber Resort Association President and CEO Marianne Virgili also sat on the panel, speaking to the concerns of business owners about some of the negative consequences of vagrancy and panhandling associated with the homeless population.
“It’s sad hearing from businesses that they and their customers and tourists don’t feel safe being downtown, and that it’s not clean,” Virgili said.
She said she has to wonder when she hears people are looking for work but can’t find it, and at the same time hears from chamber member that they can’t find enough employees.
“We need to find a way to mesh that,” she said.
Other ideas offered by those who attended the forum ranged from posting a “code of conduct” for all people visiting and enjoying the downtown area about how to behave and respect others.
There was also support for a smoking ban in the downtown that could get at some of the vagrancy issues.
If the lack of a roof over someone’s head is the problem, then housing for those who can’t afford to rent or buy a place to live is the answer, said Glenwood resident Jack Real.
“They are people, and this is our community, and we should welcome all people,” Real said. “We need to make it great for everybody, not just the ones who live up to our standards.”
Glenwood Police Chief Terry Wilson, who also sat on the panel, reiterated that the police can do little to prevent people from gathering in public places or even panhandling, which is protected as a constitutional right.
“Being homeless is not a crime,” he said. “We can only deal with criminal behavior.”
Even when it comes to public safety, rarely, if ever, has one of Glenwood’s transients assaulted a visitor or other member of the public, Wilson said.
“Typically, if there’s a problem, it’s between the folks in that demographic,” he said.
Most of the participants in the Monday panel and those who attended also agreed the conversation needs to continue, and that any ongoing community forum should involve representatives of the local homeless population.
Jackson indicated he would be willing to be that voice, if asked.
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