Sitting behind the plexiglass-shielded front desk at the Fort Collins Salvation Army office, Olga Duvall, director of social services, filled out forms on a mild day in late November while a 20-something-year-old woman waited on a bench across the hall.
“We are helping her with her rent, so she does not become homeless,” Duvall said, in her thick Russian accent.
Duvall called the woman sitting on the bench over.
“Ok, I think you’re set,” Duvall said, handing her the paperwork.
The woman — who wouldn’t offer her name — spent last winter on the streets. Over the summer she found low-income housing, but without steady work, rent is hard to come by.
The streets, she said, aren’t an option this winter because she has a 5-month-old daughter.
Last winter she stayed at The Mission, run by Catholic Charities Northern. The Mission’s policy forced her out during the day at 6:45 a.m. Its day shelter isn’t open unless weather forecasts predict temperatures below 40 degrees, and doors don’t open back up until 7 p.m., leaving many homeless on the streets more than 12 hours a day.
The Colorado Coalition for the Homeless reports that one out of every 100 people in the U.S. is in need of a home. As the Larimer County population hovers around 250,000, the Coalition estimates that 2,000 people are homeless here.
United Way, through work with local shelters, estimates that 80 of them are chronically homeless — without a home for a year or more.
“They only open the (Emergency Weather Day) Shelter when it’s really, really cold,” the woman said. “I can’t be out on the streets with my daughter. I want to make sure she doesn’t freeze to death.”
A second shelter, The Open Door Mission, caters to the daytime needs of the homeless. Its day center is equipped with an old TV and three crammed couches that have seen better days. But it’s small, catering to no more than 15 people. The woman said it’s no place for her baby.
More than a number
Gordan Thibedeau, United Way director, said the estimated 2,000 homeless in Larimer County are a largely hidden population.
“People (are) living in garages or sleeping on friends’ couches.” Thibedeau said.
Bruce Hall, a CSU social work professor, said numbers are only part of the picture.
“As long as it’s a number, people are fine,” he said. “But when you realize there’s a person behind the numbers it’s different. What are these people doing? They’re shuffling through the labor pools, they’re going to be depressed and down on themselves. If you’ve got nothing going on but bad stuff, it’s going to be very hard to break out.”
Hall compared the effect the homeless have on our community to that of college students moving into Fort Collins neighborhoods. Realty value drops or the neighborhood is sometimes perceived negatively. But where else would CSU students move?
“Well, imagine if you’re homeless,” Hall said. “You’re muttering, shaking, talking to yourself, chronically ill. You get ticketed for peeing on the streets, but where else are you going to pee?”
He said an increasing number of young, single parent families are invading campus and blending in.
“Many of the homeless at the Lory Student Center are young single mothers, (who look like students,)” Hall said. “They come with their children and blend in.”
Olga Duvall, 33, has been with the Salvation Army for 11 years, first as a translator for the Moscow branch before she came to Colorado six years ago.
“In Fort Collins, every year there’s more and more and more (people needing help),” she said. “The need is the same everywhere around the world. People need food, shelter and clothes.”
Because the majority of the homeless population is unseen, it is impossible to gauge how many go without shelter in Fort Collins. But poverty trends indicate a growing number of needy residents.
Poverty in Fort Collins increased 62 percent in the past six years from 15,872 to 25,600 people in poverty, according to a 2006 American Community Survey.
To combat and prevent the growing problem of homelessness, the city of Fort Collins, United Way and Catholic Charities banded to approve funding for a $2.4 million homeless shelter.
The coalition will break ground on the Sister Mary Alice Murphy Center in March and the center will open by Thanksgiving. It will be funded by donations from various organizations to United Way.
The complex will not be a shelter for the homeless, but it will house agencies currently scattered throughout town and provide case workers who can help struggling individuals with their specific needs.
Plans for a full-time day shelter to open at the same time are also in the works.
Until then, Catholic Charities’ Emergency Weather Day Shelter stands as the only place with enough room to shield Fort Collins’ destitute from the cold.
Twelve hours on the street . and it’s “really, really cold.”
For the dispossessed, shelters are the last refuge, and the streets are the last option.
In the early morning people trickle out of the shelters wearing layers, pulling hoods over their ears.
Some go to work, others to find jobs. Some go to various local social service offices to meet specific needs. Some go to libraries, the Lory Student Center or the Downtown Transit Center. On cold days, some can go to the Emergency Weather Day Shelter on Mason Street to keep warm.
“Some have night jobs, or part-time pizza delivery jobs, and when it’s cold they need a place to go,” said Helen Somersall, regional Catholic Charities director. “But there’s also the people camping outside, who need a place to dry out their tent.”
New Bridges Day Shelter, formerly the only day shelter for the homeless, closed in 2001 because of a lack of funding.
So three years ago the city, United Way and Catholic Charities launched a joint initiative to start the Emergency Weather Day Shelter. Fort Collins provides the building, United Way funds operations, overseen by Catholic Charities.
“When we went to fill that gap, (the need) for a day shelter, we used research from CSU students to get City Council to give us a building,” said Sister Mary Alice Murphy, founder of The Mission and chief advocate for Emergency Weather Day Shelter.
The research showed that it doesn’t need to be freezing — 32 degrees — for hypothermia to set in. People can get hypothermia at 39 degrees Fahrenheit.
Somersall and Catholic Charities staff use next-day weather forecasts to decide when to open the shelter on a daily basis.
If it’s going to be colder than 40 degrees, Dennis Alldredge, a 48-year-old Catholic Charities staffer, opens the abandoned yellow warehouse — previously owned by Ricker Brothers Inc., a wholesale trades company, to store cigarettes, candy and magazines — as a temporary shelter.
“This is my deal,” Alldredge said.
In the entryway hall, before the building breaks into the high and wide warehouse expanse, Alldredge uses a desk just inside the front door to administer Breathalyzer tests.
Water, coffee, plates and napkins sit on tables next to the desk. An old PC, solitaire the lone program, occupies a table near the window. An aquarium with only one fish sits in the partitioned makeshift family room.
“We try to have fun,” Alldredge said, with a smile.
The warehouse area has five tables occupied by people watching grainy TV. There’s a box full of what Alldredge calls “bad movies nobody else wanted” donated by Blockbuster. There’s a stack of board games and decks of cards.
Over the last three winters, Alldredge has spent more time in the old warehouse than anyone else.
“We average 18 people a day,” Alldredge said early one January morning, “But today we have 30.”
Alldredge cites social and family issues as the most common reason for homelessness.
“A lot of it’s alcohol and meth,” he said. “But you know there’s divorce, too.”
A young married couple stepped in from the crisp cold with several shopping bags full of belongings. Alldredge gave them each a breathalyzer test, the only requirement to get into the shelter. They blew into the tube, waited for their passing result, and meandered inside.
The couple took a look at the main area, the large empty space, red rafters, grey brick walls and grey cement.
“It’s a big space,” Alldredge said. “We want to have a roller derby sometime.”
The woman turned to Alldredge.
“Dennis, can you watch our bags while we smoke?” she asked.
Alldredge joked with her that he wouldn’t watch the bags. After light-hearted debate about the safety of their luggage, he told the couple to put them under the table.
“They had their child taken away from them last year (by Social Services),” Alldredge said after they walked out the door. “It was really hard on them.”
Alldredge is the main Catholic Charities staffer who works the day shelter, though others on staff relieve him at times.
He and Somersall use three different weather Web sites to determine by 3 p.m. whether they will open the next day.
But the forecasts aren’t always right.
“Last Thursday and Friday we blew it,” Alldredge said.
Weather reports predicted warm temperatures on Jan. 10 and 11. But it was wrong. The emergency day shelter was closed, leaving homeless people to the mercy of the windy snowstorm or public venues, like the public library, which is a gamble, as sometimes librarians ask vagrants to leave.
Where they don’t breathalyze
The ramped entrance to the Downtown Transit Center displays a large white sign with black lettering that reads, “No Loitering.” Small plaques over the two entryways say the same thing.
“The homeless come in and just sit, and they sit, and they sit,” said ticket clerk Marina Scohy. “After an hour we have to chase them out. They always seem to get here when the bus has left.”
City buses run on an hourly schedule, so waiting more than an hour is considered loitering.
“They’re going to go where they don’t breathalyze, and I can smell the alcohol when they come in,” Scohy said. “It can be a problem because we have working offices next door, city meetings.”
The homeless population also finds shelter at Fort Collins Public Library. Director Brenda E. Carns said she has seen the number of homeless increase since she started 11 years ago.
The homeless library patrons are generally amiable, she said, and when there is a problem it’s usually “substance abuse related.”
“For people falling into problem areas, we basically don’t have tolerance,” Carns said. “If they’re bothering people or passed out, if staff notice them sleeping, they wake them up. We may have to help them leave.
“They’re welcome . but the same rules apply to them as to everyone else.”
For the homeless there are not physically a lot of options when it’s cold and there’s no place to go.
Alldredge closes his doors at 4 p.m. The Open Door Mission serves dinner at 5. People staying at the shelters still have a couple of hours in the cold. And when the sun is down it’s even colder.
As the landscape of problems change, Somersall said, so do the services offered to the Fort Collins’ destitute.
“We’re always filling gaps,” she said. “When the New Bridges Day Shelter closed we had to fill that gap. The new center for the homeless will fill even more gaps.”
The Sister Mary Alice Murphy Center signifies the proactive approach by the many players handling the homelessness situation. The new center will concentrate local resources into one building to prevent Larimer County homeless from struggling with the area’s frigid winters.
Staff writer Tim Maddocks can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.