Homelessness affects us all

Filed under: Opinion |

Homelessness affects everyone in a community, not just those who find themselves, for one reason or another, without a roof over their heads.

Investing resources to combat homelessness is not only the right thing to do from a “moral” sense, but it is also vital in building and maintaining the type of community where business can flourish. The sight of homeless people sleeping in alleyways or panhandling on street corners is not conducive to a prosperous business community or the promotion of our city as a tourist destination.

The Colorado Springs City Council embraced the “Five Year Blueprint to House Every Citizen of Colorado Springs,” presented on Feb. 8 by Homeward Pikes Peak, the City’s coordinating agency for homeless issues. A primary focus in the Five Year Blueprint is to ensure that every homeless person has not only access to emergency shelter, but also access to a case manager who will work with them to transition them out of homelessness. The overall goal of the blueprint, as perfectly stated to City Council by Bob Holmes, Homeward Pikes Peak executive director, “is for Colorado Springs to become a great place to get off the streets, but a bad place to lead a purposely homeless life.”

Business community support crucial

In addition to government support though, the backing of the business community is crucial in combating homelessness. Lack of affordable housing led the list of causes of homelessness cited by the cities surveyed for the 2004 U.S. Mayors’ report on “Hunger and Homelessness in America’s Cities.” Also high on the list were low-paying jobs and unemployment. All three of those factors are heavily influenced by the business community.

The generally accepted definition of affordability is for a household to pay no more than 30 percent of its annual income on housing. Families paying more may have difficulty affording necessities such as food, clothing, transportation and medical care.

An estimated 12 million renter and homeowner households now pay more than 50 percent of their annual incomes for housing. A family with one full-time worker earning the minimum wage cannot afford the local fair-market rent for a two-bedroom apartment anywhere in the United States. In the U.S. Mayors’ study, 17 percent of the homeless were employed, but still not earning enough money to pay for housing.

In the past two years, the city has awarded approximately $3.1 million for housing activities that benefit the homeless and very low-income persons, who are often just one financial crisis away from becoming homeless.

Finding, or continuing, employment after someone has become homeless is extremely difficult. Negative perceptions of homeless people make it difficult for them to get a job. Having no permanent address, and having to move about to keep a roof over their heads, certainly presents serious problems when trying to find and keep a job.

Those who are homeless also lack the ability to address issues many of us take for granted, like hygiene. That combined with a lack of education and/or job training condemns many to a lifetime of minimum wage work that makes it nearly impossible to afford housing.

City signals commitment to addressing issue

The city’s adoption of the “Five Year Blueprint to House Every Citizen of Colorado Springs” signals Colorado Springs’ commitment to addressing homelessness issues. Completely eliminating homelessness is unachievable, due to some individuals’ preference for that lifestyle. However, making sure that everyone who desires to work toward a better life, including having a roof over their head, is something our community should work toward.

It is important to note that the stereotype of the typical homeless person as a single man with substance abuse problems doesn’t stand up in studies. In the U.S. Mayors’ report, only 30 percent of the homeless population was found to have substance abuse problems, while 40 percent consisted of families with children.

In Colorado Springs, the percentage of families and children is even higher, much higher. Homeward Pikes Peak estimates that 70 percent of the roughly 1,200 homeless people in Colorado Springs are women and children.

The issues faced by the homeless and those at risk of becoming homeless, directly affect the health of our community, the success of business and the quality of life in our city. Addressing homelessness is an important part of preserving Colorado Springs’ attractiveness both as a place to live and work, as well as a great place to visit.

For more information on the “Five Year Blueprint to House Every Citizen of Colorado Springs,” visit www.homewardpikespeak.org.

Lorne Kramer is the City Manager for Colorado Springs.

Sources: United States Conference of Mayors 2004 Status Report on Hunger and Homelessness in America’s Cities; U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development