Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Readers Deserve More Coverage of Homeless Issues

Happy June.

This morning the Daily Sentinel ran a follow-up to yesterday's story that the Grand Junction Police purchased 11 tents for transients, to replace those allegedly damaged by 3 of their officers. This was accompanied by an editorial strongly encouraging, if not insisting upon complete transparency in releasing the details of the investigation and its conclusion. I'll reserve comment until those details are part of the public record.

What I would like to touch upon is the event held one week ago today at the Whitman Education Center downtown. Titled "Beyond Charity", the event was hosted by Grand Valley Peace and Justice, and was billed as a forum to bring together stakeholders in the struggle to address the problem of homelessness, or "houselessness", as many who are involved in the struggle prefer it be called.

The event was well attended, and was led off by a group of local leaders in addressing homeless issues detailing their missions and activities, and how they have made an impact locally. This was followed by a brainstorming session facilitated by Blake Chambliss, an architect and former Grand Valley resident now living in Denver and advocating for social justice.

There was a lot of participation by the attendees to define the varying issues and causes surrounding homelessness; those will eventually be presented by the stakeholder group in a more formal type of report, which will hopefully have an online presence that I can link to.

The speakers seemed to make the most impact on me. Mayor Teresa Coons was in attendance, and spoke briefly. She did mention up front that the City is interested in "collaborative partnerships", but was not sure that they should be in charge of coordinating efforts among what appears to be a robust number of stakeholder groups. More about this later.

Sister Karen Bland of Catholic Outreach had some poignant remarks regarding the interdependent concepts of charity and justice, and how her organization thrives on both. She said, "Justice fuels the work of Catholic Outreach, even though our resources come from a source of charity. Everyone has a right to life that goes beyond a struggle to survive". She also asserted that safe and decent shelter for all is a moral imperative, defined as a "principle that something must be done because it is a right, through opposition and difficulty".

She went on to ask that if safe and decent shelter is an inherent right, what are the impediments to it?

I found a 2007 column from Sojourners Magazine that touches on this, and does an even better job of explaining the dichotomy that our nation, purportedly "one nation under God", must confront with this concept:

The goal of social charity and social justice is furthering the common good. Social charity addresses the effects of social sin, while social justice addresses the causes of such sins. Brazilian Catholic Archbishop Hélder Câmara famously said, “When I feed the poor, they call me a saint; when I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.” His phrase indicates the societal pressure to separate charity and justice. The two can not be separated. It would be like taking the heart out of a body—neither would live for long.

Lori Rosendahl from the Grand Junction Housing Authority spoke about the specific successes they have seen over the past year in addressing this need. Providing training to help prevent foreclosure, facilitating 'short sale' loan modification where necessary, and locating funds to provide assistance with paying security deposits are some of the ways that the Housing Authority addresses the issue. Still, over 2000 families remain on a waiting list for adequate, affordable housing, with 28% of those listing themselves as homeless. They did make the news this past week for their work with the VA and Catholic Outreach in securing housing vouchers for 35 local veterans through the federal Veterans Assistance for Supportive Housing (VASH) program.

Mike Stahl of Hilltop reported significant inroads in leveraging its existing resources along with establishing partnerships with businesses and property managers to adopt a task-driven approach to addressing homelessness issues. They have committed housing in existing Hilltop facilities to transitional use for homeless families, developed a case management framework to essentially triage for those with the greatest need and prioritize their resources, and continue to work on assisting victims of domestic violence, especially those with children, who seek assistance through Hilltop's Latimer House shelter.

One niche area Mr. Stahl also touched on is those homeless who are young adults. Many of these are foster children who turn 18, and thus 'age out' of supervision by the Mesa County Department of Human Services. Others in the audience commented later on the need to identify and work with this group, as well as other teenagers who may be homeless and are functioning under the radar of DHS or the schools.

Mr. Stahl concluded with the very astute observation that Grand Junction is a "very giving community", with "lots willing to help". He said one thing that is needed is "the right ask".

Mr. Chambliss then took the floor, and the resulting flow of ideas was as extensive and varied as the reasons behind homelessness itself. Several of the more emphasized ideas put forth were a need for coordination of all of the resources and consensus among all of the stakeholder groups. This is critical to avoid duplication of resources, and the conflicts inherent with differing missions or ways of doing things.

Several attendees made reference to the successes enjoyed by Denver's "Road Home" program, which relies on a Commission for the Homeless and a paid administrator, in partnership with the Mile High United Way to provide fundraising support. I've written about this before, specifically the parking meters placed on Denver streets from which all proceeds benefit Denver's Road Home.

This constituted my suggestion to the brainstorming session; instead of making all Downtown Grand Junction parking free during the Christmas shopping season, commit all revenue from meters, garage fees, and fines collected from tickets to the cause of addressing homelessness in Grand Junction.

There was some dissatisfaction on the part of myself and others as to Mayor Coons' remarks at the event. The Mayor has long been a supporter of community efforts to provide for programs like these, but she must also work with 6 other people whose views most likely traverse the spectrum of caring and tolerance.

Still, there is a working urban model for addressing homelessness just 250 miles away; don't allow politics or intolerance get in the way of taking the best of a working program and 10-year plan and running with it. The intellectual capital present in the City's workforce could be put to good use here, just as it likely will in identifying funding options to remodel Sam Suplizio Field.

Those in attendance included several members of the local print and broadcast media, including Sentinel reporter Amy Hamilton and, notably, publisher Jay Seaton. You wouldn't have known it, though, judging from what appears to be a complete absence of any reporting about the event in the week since it took place. Even the Free Press, noteworthy for its coverage of these issues in the past, didn't have anything about the event in this past Friday's edition. KREX appears to be the only media outlet in the area that had any reporting of the meeting.

Granted, there have been stories about the small successes, including one by Ms. Hamilton about the community garden at Catholic Outreach. However, until there is a comprehensive discussion about the nature and nuances of the problem, and how to best pool our collective resources to provide for the greatest amount of our citizens in need, we will continue to address things on a sporadic and perhaps less efficient basis than we could. This effort deserves the support of the entire non-profit community, local government, and the mass media.

Mr. Stahl had perhaps the most applicable point to make about the homeless in communities like Grand Junction. It takes not only 'the right ask', but the right attitude, that being a desire to work as hard as one can, rise out of difficulty, and eventually become self-sufficient. Contrary to a lot of current political rhetoric, the 'right wing' does not hold a monopoly on this kind of thinking, and we must also recognize that there are many in our homeless community that may too impaired to adapt into this model, whether by their own doing or not.

This leads me to mention the most glaring absence from last Tuesday's event, that being a representative of Colorado West Mental Health. This organization is the primary provider of mental health and substance abuse services in Mesa County. Their failure to be represented as a key stakeholder in a discussion about a population that may very well comprise a significant amount of their client base begs for an explanation.

Today, two events will showcase the plight of many homeless around the country, that being the attempts by many communities to criminalize their activities. Housing First! No More Deaths! will host a barbecue at the former Colorado West Park at 1st Street and Grand Avenue, in part to draw attention to the City's surreptitious removal of the land's status as a park, and re-designation of it as a median, thus prohibiting panhandling in what could be the largest median in Colorado.

This will be followed by a lecture this evening by Randall Amster, a professor at Prescott College in Arizona, on "Public Space and the Criminalization of Houselessness". 7 PM at the Unitarian Universalist Church, 1022 Grand Ave.

Until then, enjoy your day and your shelter.

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