Working to clear the air on the many issues surrounding homeless people in Trinidad, Librarian Mallory presented information about homelessness at the City Council meeting held on Tuesday, October 17. Pillard used a Power Point presentation as an aid to her discussion.
Homelessness was far from being a recent issue, she said, and dated back to before the American Civil War. She noted that the topic was an emotional one, but it was at the forefront of many local people’s minds. Her research was leading here more and more to search for viable solutions to the problems.
She said she hoped that Council members and citizens at the meeting would have a better idea of what those solutions might be, by the time she finished her presentation. There was plenty of misinformation about the homeless, and she said she wanted to separate fact from fiction concerning the issues.
“There was this concept that if you were homeless, it must be the result of a character flaw or moral deficiency of some sort,” she said. “There were notions that an all-providing God would look after you. The Civil War also changed things, because morphine was used and so drug addiction became a problem. Since then, the two have become intertwined and there has been a steady increase in homelessness.”
She said some common assumptions about homelessness today included the institutionalization of the mentally ill, the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s and the high cost of low-income housing were at the root of the homelessness. She said all of things played a part in the problem, but they didn’t necessarily explain the problem.
Homelessness could happen to anyone at any time was normally a temporary condition, she said. Nationwide data on the number of homeless was often skewed, but one clear fact was that from 25 percent to 33 percent of homeless people in the U.S. were mentally ill, often suffering from schizophrenia or bi-polar conditions. Mental illness often presented a barrier that prevented those people from escaping homelessness.
In Colorado, 83 percent of homeless people were natives of this state, she said, compared to 40 percent of Colorado residents who were born out of state, she said, citing statistics.
“So if you think about people moving to Colorado, they’re coming for a variety of different reasons. Of that group there are certainly homeless people who are moving to Colorado, but I was kind of surprised to see that most of the homeless were Colorado natives.”
She noted that the rate of increasing rents in Colorado was three times the national average, and to meet the median rent in Colorado a person would need to earn $35 per hour. Mental illness and substance abuse were cited as the two main reasons for homelessness at a recent Conference of Mayors survey, she said.
The nation’s burgeoning opioid crisis was a key component in the substance abuse problem. “I was surprised to read that drug overdose, mainly heroin and opioids, has surpassed HIV and AIDS as the leading killer of homeless people, and that opioid-related deaths in the U.S. have tripled since the year 2000. We know that our country is facing a serious issue with this, as well as the homeless population.”
Mental illness and drug abuse were key factors in people becoming homeless, she said. Las Animas County had seen a high rate of drug-related overdoses in recent years.
Another misconception was that the legalization of Marijuana in Colorado was directly related to the increase in homelessness in the state. Pillard said the facts didn’t bear that out.
“There are not reliable studies that make that correlation. Certainly people move to Colorado for all sorts of different reasons. In Pueblo ad Southern Colorado it’s low cost of living, active lifestyle, the good climate and also marijuana, indeed. But to say that the legalization of marijuana is directly correlated to homelessness is not quite right, and in fact it’s a more complex issue than that.”
In addressing the homelessness issue, she said her research had shown her what not to do in addressing the problem. Criminalizing homelessness and panhandling was not the way to go, she said, because it’s been found that ordinances that prohibit basic human behavior had been found to be unconstitutional, and because the cost is prohibitive. She cited the example of several Colorado cites that had spent big amounts of money to stop panhandling but had failed.
In terms of solutions for the homelessness problem, she said she no longer believed building a homeless shelter in Trinidad was no longer a viable option, because such shelters were intended to be temporary solutions for homeless people. What was needed was more low-income housing options for the homeless that would offer a more permanent solution to the problem. She said the State of Utah had reduced its homelessness rate by 72 percent by making it easier for poor people to buy homes, and that state had built many low rental apartments to successfully address the problem.
The city could discourage panhandling by encouraging more charitable efforts to help people in need.
“I think we’re in a position right now for the city to get the ball rolling in the right direction. I’m not sure if that includes funding in support of some component or not, but I think there are definitely things we shouldn’t do, to save money, time and resources to address the actual problem, as opposed to criminalizing homelessness or trying to build a homeless shelter. I think we should look to other cities that have tried to address these problems and failed, and try to learn from them and go from there.”
Pillard said it take the combined efforts of everyone in the community who were interested in homelessness issues to begin to address those problems.
Mayor Phil Rico said it would take a lot of public input before Council could decide whether the Trinidad community wanted to spend its limited resources on helping homeless people or whether it should spend that money on other community needs.
Council member Anthony Mattie said the City could not afford to warehouse homeless people, but should try to educate and provide job training to those people to help them become self-sufficient.