The Real Faces of Pikes Peak Homeless
“Domestic violence doesn’t just affect adults,” says Karl McLaughlin, referring to how it and other factors lead to children becoming homeless.
Seventeen-year-old Amy has a quick laugh and a natural ease with her infant son. Valeri’s steady gaze and calm demeanor belie her position as the 24-year-old mother of two sets of young twins. And Collette, 28 and a mother of two, is animated and positive.
On a recent fall day, the three young women sat in the sun and talked about children, parents, job searches, community service hours and boyfriends. The usual stuff.
Except… the three women and their children are homeless.
If this surprises you, it shouldn’t. Homelessness in Colorado Springs is a very family-centered population.
Dr. Robert Holmes is the executive director of Homeward Pikes Peak, the main umbrella agency for the homeless in Colorado Springs. He estimates our region’s homeless population includes about 3,000 family members, and that overall 80 per cent are women and children.
Holmes believes this figure is fairly constant around the country, and that this has been the case for the past ten years or more. “About four years ago, as the economy tanked, we began to see more small families driven to homelessness solely by the economic downturn and loss of jobs,” he says. “Previously, the ‘situational or crisis’ homeless were women and kids fleeing domestic abuse.”
If you visualize a middle-aged man as the more typical face of homelessness, it’s a common mistake. Says Holmes, “…the chronically homeless tend to be so much more visible.”
The families survive in a variety of ways. They couch surf, live at motels, stay at the homeless shelter and live on the streets.
A lucky few are helped by the Homeless Outreach Program.
A Step Forward
A loose group of agencies work both singly and together to reach the region’s homeless. The Homeless Outreach Program, run by Homeward Pikes Peak, is tucked off East Platte Avenue in a converted, ‘50’s era motel. It offers temporary shelter, guidance and services with the aim of self-sufficiency. But the program can only admit a limited number, usually around 80 people. The current waiting list is two to six months long.
Says program director Teresa McLaughlin, “I get asked a lot, ‘Why are you helping these people?’ ” Her husband and assistant program director, Karl McLaughlin, adds, “Those asking don’t understand that all it takes is losing one or two paychecks for many to become homeless.”
On a recent week, 85 per cent of those in the program were young families, most single mothers with children. The stories of the families are both similar and complex. A few unwise decisions. Poor parenting. Bad luck. Drug and alcohol abuse. Domestic violence.
Karl explains that many such stories start with a basic fact: “Their home lives were not suitable. They just had no idea what life is supposed to be like.”
A big part of the McLaughlins’ job is to set boundaries and model skills that show clients what a positive, self-sufficient life looks like. Clients who have employment must give back 30 per cent of their pay to Homeward Pikes Peak, much as rent must come out of a paycheck. There are random drug and alcohol screens; a positive test means instant dismissal. Eight hours of community service per week are required.
“We teach life skills,” says Karl.
Those in the program know they are fortunate. Collette, who was first dropped at a homeless shelter by her mother when she was five months pregnant, says, “Without this place I’d probably be on the streets.” Now clean for more than a year, Collette acknowledges the zero tolerance policy on drug and alcohol tests. “If it comes up positive you have to leave. It’s not worth it.”
When teenage Amy became pregnant, her father told her either to have an abortion or leave. She opted to keep the baby and moved in with her boyfriend and his mother, but soon after his mother died, leaving the young, expectant parents without resources. “People don’t chose to become homeless,” she says. “I don’t even want to imagine where I’d be if I weren’t here.”
“People wouldn’t do this on purpose,” echoes Collette. “You just find yourself in bad situations.” With a smile that attests to the work done by the Homeless Outreach Program and other services in the area, she adds, “This place helps you stand back up.”