Aug 292006
 
Authors: KEVIN JOHNSON The Rocky Mountain Collegian

Fort Collins resident Dan Spencer’s only prior experience with the homeless is the work he sometimes does with day laborers.

“I’m not sure if homelessness is a problem in Larimer County, I know it exists,” the electrician said. “I guess we will see.”

Spencer, along with about 50 volunteers, gathered Tuesday night to tackle a daunting task: counting Larimer County’s homeless.

Gerry Baker, an off-duty Sheriff’s deputy, gripped a flashlight Tuesday night as he pointed to bedding underneath a bridge. Cigarette cartons and newspaper littered the ground – signs of human existence.

“These people are anonymous citizens living in a

shadow society, a bit skittish about being approached by anyone, not fond of the government,” Baker said.

“Unless they have a secure, well-hidden space, they will most likely pack up their stuff when they leave for the day. From the time it gets cool ’til dark, that’s when they move.”

And that was the challenge that Baker and the volunteers – including some CSU students – faced on Monday and Tuesday as they tried to count the number of homeless in Larimer County.

The count was part of a statewide survey – the Colorado Statewide Homeless Count – that attempts to get an accurate estimate of the number of homeless living in the state.

The volunteers gathered Monday night at the Heart of the Rockies Christian Church. They were split into eight groups, five covering Fort Collins and three in Loveland.

“We won’t be in the safest areas,” Baker told his group. “Treat everyone like a potential threat. Sometimes we let our compassion override our guard, and we can’t do that tonight.”

The deputy belted out conduct tips: keep hands below chest level, don’t point, and make sure it’s conveyed the group comes with good intentions.

“Mental illness and homelessness go hand in hand; the fears that these people have are very real to them,” he said. “I don’t want someone hurt for their love and compassion for other human beings. There is no survey worth getting hurt over.”

Fort Collins resident Sarah Matthews said her passion to help the underprivileged got her involved with the count.

“I worked at a state psychiatric hospital and I’ve seen how many people come in from off the streets and how many people, because of their mental illness, are on the streets,” she said.

The groups were issued the 26-question survey and “goodie” bags that included non-perishable snack foods, toiletries and T-shirts.

A group trudged through Old Town, an area that Baker estimated contains the largest chunk of the county’s homeless.

About a half mile away, in a tree about 30 yards off the path, Baker spotted a blue bedroll. He suspected the owner had stashed it there before going off to find dinner.

Beside the tree was a bag with a few personal affects – toiletries, a few shirts and a pair of shoes.

Baker tromped through the brush, like a hunter looking for tracks, clues to his prey’s whereabouts: a well-worn path, crude fire pits, beer cans and cigarette cartons. At a few sites that looked more permanent than others, the group left goodie bags with leaflets of information for help.

It seemed like the group’s numbers were being wasted, so the entity of nine split into three groups of three.

Spencer’s group spotted about 15 transients at Library Park, sitting around picnic tables with music floating from portable radios. They were laughing and having a good time.

As Matthews approached the group, a woman spoke.

“They’ve been by here already,” she said, petting a dog owned by another transient sitting on the picnic table. “Hell, everyone’s been here today, you guys, the police, firemen, animal control.”

The atmosphere was festive. A group of guys sat around a table drinking and telling stories like they were in a bar. They hardly seemed to notice the surveyors’ intrusion.

“Thanks for caring,” the woman said.

The group decided that they might have better luck if they went to Old Town Square and waited for the homeless to come to them.

Matthews approached a younger guy with all his things packed on his bike. The guy was a bit grimy, a long black beard on his face and shaggy hair. He could have been homeless, but he also could have been a college student.

Around 9 p.m., the three mini groups united in a parking garage on Mason Street and LaPorte Avenue. There was talk of going to another park close by, but it was dark now and nobody seemed enthusiastic.

Several miles had been walked, and many looked tired.

They called it a night.

Counting the homeless is hard work, especially when many don’t want to be found.

Staff writer Kevin Johnson can be reached at news@collegian.com.

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