Why are people homeless?

May 172005
Authors: James Baetke

Unlike the stereotypical images of homeless, those in Larimer County, including Fort Collins, actually includes men and women of all ages and children.

People who live on the streets are in that situation for various reasons, local officials said, including mental illness, alcohol and drug addiction and job loss.

"I am really shocked at how many families are homeless, and it is accelerating," said Kathy Snell, director of the Larimer County Health and Human Services Department.

The number of homeless people in the United States, according to the 2000 Census, is approximately 1 percent of the population. Exact statistics for Larimer County were unavailable but officials' estimate of homeless is more than 2,000. They estimate the number of homeless children at several hundred. In fact, school officials stop at shelters throughout the county to pick up students for school.

Communities across the nation, including Larimer County, struggle with how to adequately address the issue of homelessness. Snell said the county gives funds to several organizations that help the homeless, including the Salvation Army. In addition, the county also owns a piece of land that some officials would like to see become a new homeless facility.

While officials deal with finding more funding for the homeless, the Salvation Army, 3901 Mason St., is helping people every day.

Ruth, a former homeless woman with thinning salt-and-pepper hair and a wrinkle-creased face, is a frequent visitor to the Salvation Army center in south Fort Collins. At the day center Ruth interacts with people to whom she can relate. Although no longer living on the street, she still maintains relationships with people who go to the center for help.

Ruth, like numerous homeless people interviewed, would not give her last name, but she told the detailed story of how she became homeless after moving to Colorado from Florida last year. After 10 years of sobriety she began to drink again. One evening in March 2004 she got drunk and almost died when an oxygen tank inside the trailer she was living in blew up and engulfed her trailer in flames.

Instantly Ruth and her dog, Blue, were homeless.

The Red Cross put her in a motel for three days, but then Ruth was left to find shelter on her own, she said. A self-proclaimed pianist, published poet and mental health speaker, Ruth has now found a home.

Trish McBroom, an associate with Salvation Army's day center, said addiction is a very common part of why people become homeless. Once an addict herself, McBroom "knows both sides." McBroom knows what it is like to face hard times and wants to help those who are homeless now.

"Everyone is addicted here. It is a never-ending story," McBroom said.

Dave Eliason, a Salvation Army volunteer, said that while some people stop being homeless, others do not. People with a strong work ethics impress Eliason.

"The success stories keep me coming back," Eliason said.

Northeast of the Salvation Army center is the Fort Collins Public Library, 201 Peterson St., where homeless people often hang out in the shade.

On a recent day, several men who said they are homeless were dressed in clean clothes. One man talked on his cell phone while wearing a watch and black sunglasses. Another man had unshaven beard patches on his face, and unseasonably warm clothing layered his body.

The men said that not enough is being done to curb homelessness. They complained that one local shelter is too strict and demands a small cash payment of about $5 to spend the night. Some of the guys have been homeless for years, some for only weeks, but they all do not want to live the lives homeless people.

Jobs are scarce in the city, they said. They get through their daily routine by supporting each other – they said it is like a community within a community. Police are usually respectful of them, but some are not as nice. Drugs are everywhere, they said, and many people on the streets suffer from some physical or mental disability.

Snell said Larimer County recognizes homelessness in the city, but local government officials disagree on the severity of homelessness and how to decrease the rate of it.

"It is very fair to say we are not keeping up with up with the problem," Snell said.

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