Holmes searches for homeless solutions

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Bob Holmes brings both patience and experience to his job as executive director of Homeward Pikes Peak.

A nonprofit agency focused on finding jobs and housing for the homeless population, Holmes has worked for the group since 2003. He brings his experience and love of children as a school superintendent to the job — as well as a practical approach to assisting people who find themselves without a roof over their heads.

Recently, Holmes took time to answer a few questions about his job and the homeless situation in Colorado Springs.

How long have you been director of Homeward Pikes Peak? How did you get involved with the program?

I am the first and only employee of Homeward Pikes Peak, starting March 10, 2003. I applied for the position because, as a superintendent of schools for 10 years, I had a special affinity for the kids who were always in trouble. I did all of my own disciplinary hearings, 1,300 in the last six years, and founded two alternative schools. I thought that if I could reach families before kids went to school, they might have a better chance of success.

I also had a lot of experience in the area of cooperative services in education, and the Homeward Pikes Peak board of directors was looking for someone to bring the homeless service agencies together to work as a team.

What are some of the challenges you face in creating programs for the homeless population?

“Funding, funding, funding,” to paraphrase the real estate truism. What we are most in need of is mental health services, and Colorado is in a constant battle with Mississippi to see which state can come in dead last in funding. There is a 50 percent match from the federal government for funding in these areas. Most states see this as a “half-full glass” situation. We in Colorado tend to see it as a “half-empty glass.” Beyond that, we are really hurting for affordable housing for low income families.

Many people want to help, but it seems that they all want to “feed the poor”; and they want to do it in such a fashion that they can hand pizza or sandwiches out to the “poor” in our local parks. I try to convince them that their dollars and time would be better spent donating to Care and Share or the Marian House Soup Kitchen, but to no avail.

Have those challenges changed over time?

We’ve experienced two major changes: 1.) We have reduced the chronically homeless population almost 70 percent since 2010, from about 625 to about 240. The ones who remain in this demographic are mostly mentally ill and/or addicted individuals who are not yet ready to enter programs. We do have several excellent rehab programs in town, but, as stated above, not much for the mentally ill. 2.) The “situational” or “crisis” homeless population has skyrocketed over the past few years. This group used to be primarily women and kids escaping from domestic violence or losing homes through dead-beat dads. Now we’re seeing many more small, young families who are used to working, but who are losing jobs because of the economic situation. The very sad aspect to this is that so many children are affected. Nothing is likely to change in this area until the economy strengthens.

What would you say is your biggest success in the years you’ve been involved with Homeward Pikes Peak?

I would have to say the 2009 — 2010 relocating of more than 600 homeless tent campers from their campgrounds in the center of the city and along I-25 to programs where they could work toward self-sufficiency. El Pomar played a huge part in this success, because while others were wondering what to do, Bill Hybl wrote Homeward Pikes Peak a check for $100,000 and promised to fund whatever was needed to solve the problem. The CSPD’s Homeless Outreach Team also played a huge part in establishing positive relationships with the campers at this time. With this teamwork, we were able to reach out to every camper and offer them an alternative to their current lifestyle. At the time we were able to assist 71 percent of the homeless campers toward self-sufficiency and reinstate the no-camping ordinance. This program was moved to the Aztec Motel in May of 2010 and when the program was completed in October, El Pomar once again provided funds to switch the focus to homeless women, kids and families. The program continues to this day, with an average population of 75 to 80individuals, pretty evenly divided between adults and children. We maintain a robust waiting list. To date we have served 1,744 homeless people in the program.

We are about cost-efficiency. With at least 227 individuals in this program having attained employment, we estimate that in sales tax alone, they are putting nearly $100,000 EACH YEAR into the treasury of the City of Colorado Springs; and our per diem costs are half of the next most cost-efficient emergency service. n CSBJ

There are some stereotypes surrounding homeless people. How do you combat those while helping people who need your help?

Let’s do panhandling first: There are common misconceptions that panhandlers are homeless and that they tell the truth. Many panhandlers see the activity as a very well paying flex-time job. A tax-free take of $100 a day is not unusual, but maybe average. And many individuals will get into their car when they’re done and drive to their house or apartment. Most panhandlers will say that they want food. Offer them a sandwich and see what happens…. Nearly 100 percent of panhandling revenues are spent on alcohol, drugs and cigarettes.

The saddest stereotype is that the chronically homeless (those you generally see downtown) are stupid and lazy. The truth is that about two-thirds of them are suffering from untreated mental illness and the ones who are drunk are usually self-medicating. There are many homeless individuals with college degrees and the occasional master’s or Ph. D. is seen. There are some late onset mental illnesses that strike after the formal education is completed.

I always encourage people to try to think of the homeless as individuals, each a unique person. I try never to give up hope on anyone and have coined the phrase “my ‘not yet’ people.”

It takes an immense amount of patience and can take dozens of contacts before someone might decide to come off the streets and into a program.