Feb 132008

centerBy Tim Maddocks

After years of enduring unfit living conditions, unsure where they would spend the next day, the under-the-radar Larimer County homeless population will soon have a sure place of refuge from the biting cold of Front Range winters every day.

Construction on a new $2.4 million center to alleviate homelessness in the county will begin in March and is planned to open by Thanksgiving.

The Sister Mary Alice Murphy Center for Hope will house agencies and case managers to guide people out of homelessness and to prevent people from becoming homeless.

Sister Mary Alice Murphy, a long-time advocate for Fort Collins’ poor, opened the first soup kitchen, the first homeless shelter and the first non-profit affordable housing agency since coming to Fort Collins in 1983. She now spearheads the newest innovation for Fort Collins’ needy.

Groundbreaking for the Murphy Center is scheduled for late March, “when the ground thaws a little,” said Gordan Thibedeau, executive director of United Way.

“It’s startling to people,” Murphy said. “A lot of people in Fort Collins don’t believe there are homeless here. There’s an aura that this is Choice City. But there are poor, and they’re hidden.”

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 conservatively estimates that there are 2,000 homeless people here.

Kim Iwanski, project manager for the Murphy Center, said that a more revealing fact can be found in a survey of Poudre School District students. In 2006, 806 children claimed to have experienced homelessness. She said that number may be higher because many of the older students try to hide their situation.

It could happen to anyone

“Most of us are one paycheck away from being homeless,” said Bruce Hall, a CSU social work professor.

Hall said all it takes in some cases is the flu.

“Let’s say you’re a student-bartender at Young’s, and you’re hit with the flu. You miss three weeks of work. You won’t be able to pay rent,” Hall said. “Next thing you know you’re sleeping on friends’ couches and homeless. It’s as simple as that.”

For the homeless population, finding the right agencies to help can be difficult because the many different social services are scattered throughout town, and each individual has different needs.

“There’s no one reason people are homeless,” Murphy said. “There are as many reasons as there are people in the shelters. So it will be a one-stop shopping center for all the housing needs. And hopefully we can get to people before they’re homeless.”

With the county heading construction efforts, United Way has raised the money and will continue to manage funding, while Catholic Charities Northern will run day-to-day operations once the center is completed.

Helen Somersall, regional director for Catholic Charities, has been dealt the task of designing the daily operations and organization of the Murphy Center.

She said while the specifics are not worked out, the center plans to have an intake process that will cater to specific needs of each individual.

Somersall said an intake matrix will determine what needs are being met and which aren’t, then a case manager will guide the client to whatever action will be most helpful.

More than 30 potential agencies may be housed in or associated with the new center. Probable agencies housed in the new center include: Fort Collins Housing Authority, CARE Housing, Workforce Center, Consumer Credit Counseling Service and Project Self-Sufficiency.

The center will also have mailboxes and voicemail for homeless people who find it hard to network for jobs or acquire necessary documents to get their jobs, homes and public services.

Thibedeau said that while the center will have employees, volunteers will be “extremely important.” The community, he said, needs to come together to confront the problem.

“It’s critical that students get involved,” said Murphy, who is a CSU social work student adviser. “And some of them are not that far from being homeless themselves.”

Corey Longhurst, a junior business student, is a member of the Homeless Initiative Task Force for UniverCity, an organization designed to enhance the relationship between CSU and Old Town.

“Even though the issue is somewhat hidden, I think the homeless are very much part of the fabric of the CSU and Fort Collins community,” Longhurst said.

The cities of Fort Collins and Loveland contributed $70,000 and $87,500, respectively, from Community Development Block Grants.

Larimer County added $283,000. The rest of the $2.4 million came from various foundations and private donors.

The center will be located in north Fort Collins on the corner of Conifer Street and Blue Spruce Drive.

Plans are also in the works to open a full-time day shelter at the same time as the Murphy Center.

Staff writer Tim Maddocks can be reached at new@collegian.com.

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