Thursday, December 09, 2010

Rocks and Hard Places -
The Homeless in Winter

As winter continues to intensify across the Grand Valley and throughout the Mountain West, the attention of the social service community turns toward those who are facing a winter without shelter. This winter, however, things appear to be different. They're looking up on a number of fronts:

The season began with continued lobbying and media attention regarding the plight of homeless families with small children, who had no dedicated available shelter space during the day. There was one paragraph in the KKCO story that resonated with me, even though I am familiar with the situation:
The Catholic Outreach Day Center doesn't allow kids, since some of the homeless there are convicted sexual offenders. "Those children have no place. Where do they go to keep them warm?" asks Dolores Roberts, of Joining Hands, a non-profit organization that helps at-risk children.
The story made it sound as if Catholic Outreach, while justifiably trying to keep children away from known sex offenders, was giving those offenders preference. This was a classic rock-and-a-hard-place situation. As much as I'm sure Catholic Outreach sympathized with the need, they had no practical way of filling it without endangering, in their view, both the children and their entire mission.

In any event, the story also resonated with Captains Terry and Dan Wilson of the Grand Junction branch of the Salvation Army. In short order, part of their gym in their North 4th Street headquarters building was converted into what they're calling a permanent winter day shelter for families with children.

They came through for kids, even in the face of their own adversity - the indefinite loss of one of their thrift stores. Captain Dan Wilson was quoted in the KJCT story stating that the loss of their store on Ute Avenue would "give them a chance to turn their attention to other projects".

And how. Remember those bell ringers and red kettles this month.

This development is significant for a number of reasons:
  • The Salvation Army had heretofore not been an active participant in recent efforts to identify, leverage, and involve stakeholders in the effort to combat homelessness in a coordinated fashion. This includes efforts such as the Grand Valley Coalition for the Homeless and Beyond Charity.
    The availability of a facility such as their headquarters for this purpose brought reactions of surprise from some of those involved in coordinating services for the homeless; this is perhaps an indication of the truly diverse nature of the resources available in our community, as well as difficulties with perceptions and assumptions that sometimes get in the way. One person involved stated that they thought the Salvation Army was affiliated with the Roman Catholic church. This is not the case.

  • This was accomplished largely through the efforts of advocacy groups that are very new in terms of the length of their existence as stakeholders in the provision of services to the homeless. Jacob Richards and Eric Niederkruger of Housing First! No More Deaths! (HFNMD) both cited the efforts of Angel Light and Joining Hands, along with their group, as instrumental in putting this issue into the public eye through a combination of direct action and publicity, until the right eyes saw the story.
    These organizations have at their core people who have been homeless, and while not possessing all the trappings of a board-governed, social science and public policy-steeped sustainable non-profit, are nonetheless accomplishing things that more traditional approaches are not.

HFNMD has also begun their night patrols in earnest, using a donated former GVT bus with a wheelchair lift to assist in providing for the needs of people they find on the streets, including transport if necessary.

The Grand Junction Rescue Mission has re-opened its men's shelter after a remodeling project. 20 additional beds have been added, making the shelter available to 68 men a night.

The Homeward Bound overflow program is back in full swing with the cooperation of local churches and Grand Valley Peace and Justice. Many local churches are taking in homeless people who otherwise would have been turned away for shelter services.

Plans for additional transitional housing in the City may be afoot as well.


The Grand Junction Police Department's announcement that its new Homeless Outreach Team (HOT) is going into service has the potential to be a significant force for positive change and assistance for those homeless who desire it. Modeled after an award-winning program in Colorado Springs, the team is comprised of three GJPD officers. Their stated intent is to "build relationships (and) to help people".

Good for them. I know two of the officers involved, and am impressed with their selection to serve on this team. I'm willing to believe that if GJPD and the City will sustain their commitment to HOT, they can make a difference in the lives of those who do not want to be homeless.
That being said:
  • The existence of the HOT initiative in Grand Junction would likely not have been considered, approved or implemented had this past summer's questionable enforcement activities in homeless camps not been reported and acted upon.

  • The primary focus of the Colorado Springs HOT was the relocation of hundreds of homeless persons camped along creek beds or underneath overpasses, in response to a city-wide ban on camping. It would be safe to assume that one of the initial projects for Grand Junction's HOT officers will be outreach to those camping by the river and elsewhere, perhaps in preparation for more direct police action with those campsites as warmer weather arrives.

  • A Colorado Springs HOT officer was quoted in at least two online stories stating that despite the continued presence of people camping, they have only issued written warnings thus far. Another report stated that only the HOT officers can issue tickets for violation of the camping ordinance.

  • The recent death of a transient camped near a transient camp known as "The Point" is perhaps an example of where a HOT presence can assist in identifying and assisting those who are in need, before the circumstances that brought them to homelessness catch up with them.

  • This also raises questions about those who are homeless by choice, and eschew assistance. Given that a good portion of the local riverfront is not in the city limits, is there a potential issue with contact and/or enforcement when there is transient camping on unincorporated land?
As this year comes to a close, I think it can be fairly said that significant strides have been made in addressing the plight of the homeless in Grand Junction. Continued diligence and commitment of some of the fine people that I've had the privilege of meeting and/or knowing over my years here will surely continue to bring about not only a consistent, sustainable level of commitment, but a diverse network of professionals, community advocates and activists, and ordinary citizens who know what needs to be done, and in a lot of ways will get there.

They are adding their light to the sum of light. What else can be said, especially this time of year?

This coming Sunday the Grand Valley Coalition for the Homeless will hold their annual observance in memory of those without homes in our area who have died. The ceremony begins at 2:00 PM at Hawthorne Park, Downtown Grand Junction. The memorial tree sits near the park's northwest corner at 4th and Hill.

Have a great day.

(UPDATED 12/9/10 11:30 AM - Memorial Observance)

1 comment:

Jenny said...

Excellent post and points. I was thrilled to read about GJPD's "HOT" program. DHS is also pretty involved in helping those who are in need. We know of someone who is a registered offender but has a small child and therefore has limited options, at least in regards to resources.