Lake County is searching for solutions to homelessness by increasing public outreach and hiring outside consultants.
The Lake County Housing Coalition hired housing experts to help assess the homelessness issue in the area after hearing from two different faith organizations that the number of people without housing here is snowballing, said Kristi Galarza, lead housing facilitator with Lake County Build a Generation.
While people may not always be living on the streets, they find themselves couch surfing or living in a home that already has a family or two residing there, said Galarza. In the summer, people experiencing homelessness camp in their cars or tents.
Consultants Greg Harms and Willa Williford helped conduct focus groups last week with people who do not have long-term housing. They also gave presentations at Lake County Public Library on the causes of homelessness. Around nine people participated in the focus groups on Tuesday, June 28.
Harms and Williford have years of experience addressing homelessness throughout the state. Harms spent 20 years as CEO of Boulder Shelter for the Homeless and has experience building shelters and supportive housing. Williford founded her company Williford LLC in 2016 to provide housing solutions in the Mountain West. She currently works as Boulder County’s housing director.
Homelessness in Lake County
People can become homeless for many reasons, according to the consultants. They might struggle with mental health challenges, addiction issues, poor choices, housing costs, systematic discrimination or a lack of jobs and job training. It might also boil down to simply being unlucky or having to navigate generational poverty.
Luz Escalera, kitchen and meals coordinator at St. George Episcopal Church, helped run the focus groups and shared some takeaways on causes of homelessness with the Herald.
One of the biggest concerns the focus group participants had was the prevalence of VRBOs (vacation rentals by owner) or short-term rentals, said Escalera.
She said some homes used to be long-term rentals, but now many are vacation rentals, which limits housing options.
Some have taken matters into their own hands. In one case, three families have crammed together to live in a single manufactured home, meaning one family lives in each room, said Escalera.
Without long-term housing, many people find assistance by living with family and friends. Escalera said this is particularly true within the Latin demographic, where people will often give up space in their homes when necessary.
“So they’re not on the street. They’re not in their cars. But they are living with family or friends in order to not be on the street,” said Escalera.
Finding suitable employment doesn’t necessarily mean someone will have luck in their housing search as well. Escalera said most of the people facing housing insecurity work in Lake County’s local hotels and restaurants. She added that if someone works locally, the deserve access to housing in the area.
Leadville Police Chief Hal Edwards emphasized that there are many different types of people experiencing homelessness. In Lake County, people tend to be highly mobile and may move between various campsites and parking lots while living in vehicles. It’s too cold in the winters for people to live without shelter, but they can camp in the summers.
Last month, a citizen reported an abandoned camp in Leadville’s east side mining district to the police department. The camp had a full-sized couch, easy chair, tables and folding chairs. The police department responded and dismantled the camp.
The vast majority of the east side mining district is privately owned property due to mining claims. He encourages people to camp responsibly where it’s permitted and not leave anything behind.
Harms and Williford have started interviewing service providers such as Solvista, St. Vincent Health and Advocates of Lake County to get a better understanding of the local homelessness problem.
While the lack of housing is a major issue, Lake County has strong support programs in place, including the Advocates of Lake County, Full Circle of Lake County, Cloud City Conservation Center and more.
Beyond utilizing existing resources to help people who are experiencing homelessness or are at risk, the consultants emphasized prevention, crisis response and long-term solutions in the form of houses.
Prevention strategies include providing rent subsidies, food banks and other programs like Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits.
Communities can provide crisis response through overnight shelters, hotel vouchers and sanctioned camping.
The long-term solution to homelessness is housing, which consultants say could look like voucher and subsidy programs, group homes, rapid re-housing and permanent supportive housing.
To address the issue in Lake County, Edwards suggested local government work to locate a site for bathrooms and portable showers for individuals in need. This could be a safe, designated drug-free space for people to reside in the summer.
People experiencing homelessness typically don’t have anyone to lobby and speak up on their behalf, said Edwards. Part of the homelessness problem today is a consequence of being part of an individualistic society.
A perfect world would have funding to address the root causes of homeless like mental health issues and inadequate wages, said Edwards. “In America, we just don’t have the political will to address these things.”
The consultants will use the data they collected from service provider interviews and focus groups to create a needs assessment report, which should be completed by the end of July, said Galarza. “This report will help us right-size any future services our community creates.”
For example, Galarza said the county wouldn’t want to put all of its efforts toward a 20-bed emergency shelter if there was really a need for a five-bed emergency shelter and 10-unit permanent supportive housing development or vice versa.
Additionally, Galarza said the assessment will reveal what steps the community might need to take to provide services for people experiencing homelessness in Lake County.