- Associated Press - Saturday, March 19, 2016

GREELEY, Colo. (AP) - Every morning, Chris Llamas leaves his blue tent on the bank of the Poudre River and walks about a mile south to the Lincoln Park Library in downtown Greeley. He likes to get there early, before the doors unlock. That’s when everyone is outside.

The library, 919 7th St., is the homeless community’s gathering place. It’s where everyone goes to catch up and share information. News spreads fast.

The complex not only holds the library, where they go to warm up or cool down, keep in touch with loved ones on Facebook or get some help on finding a job, but also holds the municipal court and gives them a place to catch the bus.

In a few short months, that building won’t exist. The city will clear the block to make way for a hotel and conference center, one of the many pieces of a plan to give downtown Greeley a chance to grow even beyond the revitalization the area’s experienced in the past few years.

The city plans to move the library and municipal court a half-mile south into temporary buildings. The library will be half the size of the Lincoln Park Library now. The bus station will be a mile north, off 11th Avenue and A Street.

Llamas, and many like him, worry when the building and bus station go away, the gathering place will disappear with it.

“For a while, it will be a swarm of bees with no beehive,” Llamas said.

MORE VISIBLE

Greeley’s homelessness problem has gotten not only more severe, but also more visible, local experts say. The library is perhaps the most noticeable piece of a larger problem.

“We’re at a tipping point where we’re all uncomfortably aware we haven’t found an easy way to deal with (homelessness) yet,” said Assistant City Manager Becky Safarik. “It’s helped raise the dialogue. We’ve got to get ahead of this issue.”

She serves as a chairwoman for Greeley’s coalition on homelessness. It’s a partnership between the city, various nonprofit organizations and service centers, business owners and residents.

They’ve worked to form a strategic plan on how to handle the issues brought to life by the rise in homelessness. They started working on it this past May. It should be ready this May.

That plan has to balance short-term needs, such as handling the library relocation, addressing bathroom shortages and finding ways to help pay for meals. But it also has to take a look at long-term needs, such as affordable housing projects, preventive services and job counseling.

To build the plan, coalition members had to get some background. They studied the different kinds of homelessness in Greeley and what may have sparked the growth.

The coalition focused on four kinds of homelessness: family, youth, veterans and the chronically homeless.

The first three groups have clear definitions: families who stay together while homeless, children who are without families and are homeless; and those who were in the military and become homeless. Many of these people aren’t necessarily on the streets. They can be “couch surfing,” or staying the night with different friends. Some are “doubled up,” which means they live in a single-family residence with other families.

This can be more trying than it sounds, said Melanie Falvo, who serves as United Way’s community impact coordinator.

The family can be a single mother and her many children, and the “friend” they’re staying with can be a man who is exploiting the mother - and sometimes the children - for sex. When families are doubled up, it can be in a small apartment, but it can also be in a house with a meth lab.

It’s hard to know these people exist, Falvo said. They’re private about their situations, and they’re not in homeless shelters or on the streets.

The chronically homeless are the people you do see on the streets, or in front of the Lincoln Park Library.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development defines chronic homelessness for nonprofits and organizations such as the United Way.

There are a few ways to fall under the chronically homeless umbrella. A person can be homeless for a year or more or have had at least four episodes of homelessness in the past three years.

Veterans tend to overlap into this category because of the physical and mental trauma they sustain while serving. Many chronically homeless people are suffering mental illness or drug addictions. It affects their ability to maintain relationships.

“They don’t have those couches to stay on anymore,” Falvo said.

Some even prefer the streets.

The United Way conducts a point-in-time survey taken every year, and it measures the amount of people living in shelters, on the streets or areas that HUD calls “not fit for human habitation,” such as under bridges or in abandoned houses. A majority of those surveyed are from downtown.

This past year, the survey found 88 people in Weld County, and only three were outside Greeley. This year, there were 79, and 15 were outside Greeley.

“I am not confident in those numbers,” Falvo said. “I think it’s an incredibly low estimate.”

In addition to measuring only people who are visibly homeless, the survey is an opt-in measuring device; people have to sign up.

“We had a lot of people refuse to take it,” Falvo said. “Many of those were at the library. They said they did this survey last year, and nothing has changed.”

The problem is, funding for the kind of projects that would help these people, such as funding to the United Way, comes from these numbers. So when fewer people register, less money goes to help them.

Other surveys, such as the federally mandated one District 6 conducts that looks only at students, includes the youngsters who are couch surfing and doubling up.

“The school district finds hundreds of people,” Falvo said. “The year that the flood hit (2013), it was thousands of homeless youth. That’s not even hitting their family members.”

Obviously, anyone who has lost a home has been dealt a blow economically. Safarik points to the downturn in 2008.

“We’re seeing more residual from the Great Recession,” she said. “It was too big of a hit for them.”

Weld County saw its highest foreclosure rate on record during the recession, with more than 3,300 homes taken in 2009 alone.

Marcos Roman serves as a corps officer at the Salvation Army of Greeley, 1119 6th St. He said since he got here in 2014, he’s seen homelessness grow. He now sees more visible signs of it.

“I never saw people panhandling,” he said. Now he does.

The Salvation Army is close to downtown, and it serves lunch Tuesday through Thursday. It used to be five days per week, but budget constraints forced them to drop Mondays and Fridays.

Many of the people who eat there spend time at the Lincoln Park Library before and after.

“There’s not really anywhere (else) for them to go,” he said.

There’s a shortage of options during the day for the chronically homeless, and one of the coalition’s goals is to address that.

SHORT-TERM FIXES HARDER TO DISCOVER

Addressing short-term problems such as the library closure can be difficult.

Organizers - and those who fund them - have to prioritize short-term help and possible long-term fixes.

“In HUD’s eyes, every dollar that’s not spent on permanent housing is a dollar that could have gone to permanent housing,” Falvo said.

Various housing projects are under way in Greeley. Housing for the formerly homeless usually falls into two categories: apartments with low prices or rent assistance only, and apartments with these services in addition to substance abuse counseling, computer classes and other kind of support.

The short-term fixes are harder to discover, Roman said. For example, various businesses and city locations don’t allow homeless people to use the restrooms.

It’s not to be mean, Roman said. Some people wreak havoc on sewage systems. He’s seen it himself at the Salvation Army. People have flushed all sorts of unexpected items: shot glasses, shower caps, used syringes.

The city happens to be building a stand-alone restroom facility near Lincoln Park. The project didn’t come as a result of the homeless coalition’s plan; the plan isn’t finished yet. But the plan will help identify smaller projects similar to these.

It also will address where people can spend their time during the day. Most shelters offer only nighttime services, which is why so many end up at the Lincoln Park Library.

City officials gave the High Plains Library District, which administers the Lincoln Park Library, a June 21 deadline to be out.

District officials are in lease negotiations with Goodwill to share space at its location on 11th Street and 10th Avenue for the library. They hope to have a contract signed by the end of March. The plan is to prepare the temporary library so it can open the day after the Lincoln location closes, said High Plains Executive Director Janine Reid.

But even if the new library is open on time, the facility will be half the size. The concern is there will not be room for both homeless people and other patrons.

“We’re not going to have nearly as many chairs and tables,” Reid said. “It will be very disruptive to the people who count on us as a meeting space.”

Where’s the new meeting space going to be for Greeley’s homeless population? No one is sure.

Llamas is an expert on Greeley. He walks all over town. One day, he walked from 59th Avenue to Greeley Central just for fun.

He can tell you where to get the cheapest bottomless coffee, and where the grocery store closest to downtown is now that Safeway is closed.

His best guess?

“The parks are going to fill up.”

___

Information from: The Tribune of Greeley, Co, https://greeleytribune.com

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