by Candi Helseth
In Colorado’s very rural, agricultural San Luis Valley where poverty rates are high and weather harsh, La Puente Home, in Alamosa, Colo., offers homeless individuals a respite from the problems that have led to their homelessness. Last year, La Puente Home provided emergency shelter for 1,050 homeless individuals, including 100 families. Lee Walters was among them—it was the third time over a 15-year period that Walters had lived in the shelter.
“Every year here we see lives lost due to lack of shelter, not just homeless people but also people with insufficient housing,” said Georgia Parment, La Puente’s education coordinator. “In the winters when we can easily have subzero temperatures, people who have no electricity or insufficient heat will move in, too.”
Walters, whose bouts of homelessness have been offset by better times, was one of the dedicated volunteers who helped cook and serve 43,000 meals at the shelter last year. La Puente also provided emergency food assistance to an additional 35,000 individuals.
Through the years, Walters says he has met homeless people from all walks of life. Regardless of their skills and backgrounds, he said, they share common feelings of being devastated and overwhelmed. He understands that.
“You just don’t see a way out, regardless of the reason how you got there,” he said. “You can’t really see past your problems. Then there’s the stigma. Yes, there’s a lot of homeless people that are addicted or mentally ill, but then you don’t know what put them in that position either. Things happen. Like, I didn’t choose to not be able to work and take care of myself.”
Walters spent 17 years in the military. Then a heart attack forced his discharge. He said he didn’t receive full veteran’s benefits because the heart attack was ruled as being unrelated to his military service. He returned to Alamosa broke and sick in 1995, and moved into La Puente Home for a while. Although his health problems prevent him from working full-time or at stressful jobs, he has supported himself and lived independently most of the time since then. But a few years later, when the department store where he worked closed and his wife left him, he returned to La Puente’s shelter. On his own again, he returned again last fall after suffering a debilitating stroke.
“La Puente is great at helping you get back to self-sufficiency,” Walters said. “They help find apartments, get medication you need, get you ready for job interviews, a lot of tremendous things that are way more than food and shelter. And they help you think through things and figure out what to do when you just can’t see it.”
Looking beyond immediate needs
Although Walters is living independently again, he is permanently disabled and unable to work. La Puente staff is helping him apply for disability benefits. Illnesses closely associated with poverty—such as malnutrition, life-threatening dental problems and addiction issues—are overwhelming among the homeless because they don’t have health insurance or the money to pay for services, according to the National Health Care for the Homeless Council.
La Puente serves a six-county region that includes the state’s two poorest counties. Twenty-four percent of the population in La Puente’s service area has no health insurance, compared to the state average of 15 percent. Twenty percent receive Medicaid, compared to 9 percent in the rest of Colorado.
“La Puente’s Health Access Initiative advocates and navigates homeless and near-homeless individuals into health services,” Parment said. “Generally, prevention and medical care is the farthest thing from their minds. They’re too busy thinking about what they’re going to eat or where they’re going to sleep. And they know they can’t afford health care so they ignore the problem until they can’t any longer.”
Ultimately, when homeless people do get treatment, it is usually in hospital emergency rooms, the most expensive form of health care. At that point, they require more care and more resources because the illness or injury has likely advanced.
La Puente staff also work with shelter residents to help them look for jobs and connect with other providers that can help them live independently. But rural areas generally have fewer opportunities for employment, with lower paying jobs and little or no public transportation, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH). Parment said people in the valley might live many miles from where potential jobs are located. Because they can’t afford a personal vehicle, they have no way to get to work.
La Puente also provides services such as supportive and permanent housing programs and home rehabilitation to stop residents from losing their homes or being evicted. Emergency assistance is essential, Parment said, but so is prevention and long-term housing.
Increasing awareness and public support
For effective change to take place nationwide, public awareness and attitudes about homelessness must change, said Neil Donovan, NCH executive director. Donovan said that public perception tends to view homeless people as the source of their own misfortune, and most Americans’ association with homelessness relates only to chronically homeless individuals on the streets who often are mentally ill or addicted to alcohol or drugs.
La Puente forbids alcohol and drug usage. Residents who break the rules must leave. La Puente also limits TV viewing and requires residents to do daily chores and show progress in changing their situation.
Despite rural homelessness being “virtually ignored for years,” Donovan said progress is being made. He pointed to rural Ohio’s RHISCO Project (see Helping the Rural Homeless Find Permanent Housing) as an example of a successful model that can be duplicated in other rural areas.
“With RHISCO, we also realized we don’t know as much about rural homelessness as we need to as a national organization, and no one else does either,” Donovan said. “We are trying feverishly hard to understand the problem relative to rural areas.”
NCH and its member chapters, which represent every state, are working to increase awareness in their respective locations. The Faces of Homelessness Speakers Bureau has made presentations to more than 17,000 people in 40 states. NCH sought out homeless people, training and paying them to help educate the public and to present their stories to Congress when federal funding is being requested.
Rural homelessness was totally unfunded for many years, Donovan said. Even now, the way the federal government “counts” homeless people negatively impacts rural areas’ federal funding. (See How Many Rural Homeless Are There?) Parment said La Puente is able to offer its comprehensive programming only because of the strong support it receives from area churches, fundraising events and an abundance of volunteers. That includes an ongoing partnership with AmeriCorps; currently, 20 AmeriCorps volunteers are living in Alamosa for a year and working for La Puente. In addition, La Puente receives funding from the Colorado Division of Housing Emergency Shelter Grant Program, the Community Services Block Grant program, FEMA’s Emergency Food and Shelter Program, and the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless.
The Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program (HPRP), a $1.5 billion stimulus-funded initiative, is helping communities prevent further increases in homelessness as a result of the recession. However, the recession is also increasing the need for services. Insufficient resources, both in terms of funding and available staff and volunteers, will continue to be particular challenges for rural providers seeking to address the problem of homelessness.
Back to: Winter 2010 Issue