Apr 182012
 
Authors: Jason Pohl

A man who prefers to go by Richard hobbles along the streets under an eight-layer armor of coats and ragged shirts, toting a half-empty beer as the wind howls around him, swirling dirt, leaves and his deeper and hidden emotions.

The 51-year-old doesn’t walk as well as he did during his youth, partially due to aging and partly the trying conditions. His short stature and hunched spine, combined with weakening hips and shaky, fragile legs make travel tough.

Richard –– an elementary school teacher for nearly more than a decade –– never imagined his life would be like this as he wanders into a nearby bookstore to read in the corner until closing time.
Musing through books each night, he sits and thinks, taking comfort in knowing that he is warm and safe –– for the moment.

The missing teeth hinder his speech –– remnants from an old ice hockey injury. But when talking with him, his pride and intellect surfaces. He talks of science like an academic. He kindly refuses handouts and sorrow. He doesn’t panhandle and is proud of it.

But he knows the ins and outs of an often judgmental and broken society.

Richard is homeless and has been on the streets searching for work and struggling to get by for nearly three years.

“Some people choose to live this way –– others are forced into it,” he said of a turbulent life on the streets. “Do I like it? No. Can I deal with it? I have no choice.”

A helping hand for the homeless

Hundreds of helping hands and a glimmer of hope will be available for people like Richard and the rest of Fort Collins’ homeless population from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Friday at the Aztlan Community Center, 112 Willow St.

The event, Project Homeless Connect, is a community-wide one-day effort that will pool resources from across the city into a common place so people have options and what they need to pull themselves out of what could be the most trying times in their lives.

“You need to obviously help out people when they’re in their most vulnerable situation, but you also need to give them tools and opportunities to be able to move out of that situation,” said Sarah Hach, community programs director for the Bohemian Foundation –– a contributing sponsor of the event. “I think that’s what we care about.”

The Bohemian Foundation contributed $5,000 to Friday’s event, and Hach explained it really is just part of the solution in getting people the basic services and necessities to get them back on their feet.

“It’s really like no other event in Fort Collins,” she added, explaining how pivotal relationship-building is, especially when trying to rise out of homelessness. “It’s pretty powerful to see.”

Services will include everything from free health screenings, housing information, veteran’s services, tax advice and a wealth of information about finding a job and regaining a steady income.
“This is a really nice way for people to be able to connect with service providers, meet them face-to-face and do it in a comfortable setting,” said Daniel Covey, the director of the Hand-Up Cooperative –– one of more than two-dozen groups that will attend.

He explained Hand-Up plays an instrumental role in connecting homeless people with potential employers, emphasizing a “win-win” situation for everyone.

This, he said, comes from meeting people and different organizations, further uniting the attempts to eradicate homelessness.

Homeward 2020’s Impact

In an effort to curb homelessness entirely in Fort Collins, Bryce Hach founded Homeward 2020 – an ambitious 10-year plan he said will coordinate resources that will ultimately bring about long-term change with the intent of eliminating homelessness in the area.

Project Homeless Connect is a part of that effort.

“We’re a better community as a whole if we really take a systemic kind of approach to address this issue rather than just kind of pushing it off to the wayside and letting the problem grow and fester till a point when we have no other option,” Bryce Hach said.

To truly bring the community together, the 10-year plan hinges on addressing chronic and episodic homeless.

Beginning in 2010, the first five years are devoted to assessing need and gathering resources together to address the chronically homeless, a group that represents only about 10 percent of homeless people but requires upward of 50 percent of the resources from emergency health care to police bookings, according to Bryce Hach.

Phase two of the plan addresses episodic homelessness, which accounts for more than about 400 people at any given time in Fort Collins, according to a 2010 point-in-time survey. This group often couch surfs and stays with friends, often after job loss or a family shakeup.

Hundreds of high school and elementary students in Fort Collins last year fell in and out of this category.

“People who are homeless are really existing in survival mode,” Bryce Hach said, explaining the needs of the present often overtake the potential for the future solutions. To them, he said it becomes more about getting a meal and finding shelter, leaving little time for a serious job search and lifestyle change.

The comprehensive plan aims to bring in affordable housing, supportive employment and long-lasting opportunities to keep people out of homelessness in the first place. Bryce Hach explained this systemic change is the key to ensuring the program works.

Martin Shields, an economics professor at CSU, agreed the large-scale change is the key to driving a new future for this complex issue in Fort Collins.

“There’s certainly reason to believe that people should live with the consequences of their choices,” Shields said. “But at the same time, there’s a lot of people who did everything right, and something happened outside of them or something could happen to them that would put them in a situation through no fault of their own.”

“There’s so many people who are an injury away,” Shields added.

Bryce Hach said efforts like Friday’s event really bring the opportunity to change the face and future of the problem in Fort Collins, though it is just one part of a complex solution.

“Project Homeless Connect is a beautiful one-day metaphor of the network that the 10-year plan is working on in the long run to make homelessness rare, short-lived and non-recurring in our community,” he said.

“That relationship development … cannot be undervalued.”

Senior Reporter Jason Pohl can be reached at news@collegian.com.

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