Although it may not be the most visible problem facing the area, homelessness in Routt County may be more of an issue than people think and it's not likely to go away any time soon, say those on the front lines.
David Freseman, the executive director of LIFT-UP of Routt County, said that his organization helped 73 people without shelter through its Community Cares Program in 2000. The Community Cares Program offers transient homeless people vouchers for food, lodging and bus fare on a one-time basis. Those vouchers can be obtained from LIFT-UP and local police.
Assistant Police Chief Art Fiebing said the department has used the vouchers this winter to put people up in one of three motels or offer them food money or bus fare, but he didn't think the department had dealt with an increase in the number of people needing vouchers so far this winter.
"I haven't seen any real change over the years in people coming into town and just needing a helping hand," Fiebing said.
Vouchers are available for one-night stays at the Super 8 Motel, the Nite's Rest Motel and the Nordic Lodge, said Director of Public Safety Services J.D. Hays.
Fiebing added that the vouchers do not cover long-term food or lodging, though LIFT-UP does operate a food bank on weekdays from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. at the old junior high school. Freseman said the food bank serves about 35 people a week. That number may include people who use the food bank more than once a week. It also includes people who have housing but may have paid their rent at the expense of feeding themselves, Freseman said.
Routt County Sheriff John Warner said the county deals with few homeless people because they usually fall within the city's jurisdiction.
In the summer, Fiebing said, many people campout illegally for extended periods of time in Medicine Bow/Routt National Forest, perhaps for lack of housing, though the city is unlikely to crack down on them.
"If you walked up behind Howelsen, you'd likely run into a lot of folks camping out for the long haul," Fiebing said. "But we sure have better things to do than beat the bushes looking for homeless people."
Winter homelessness, he added, is more serious because of Routt County's cold nights. Even a one-night stint outside for a transient could prove dangerous.
But transient homelessness, Freseman said, is only one form of homelessness in the area.
There are actually four types of homeless people in Routt County, Freseman said. Aside from transients, Freseman considers some of the people who are not on leases but stay at other people's homes on couches and floors for weeks at a time to be homeless, as well as people who have been evicted or lost their homes due to a personal crisis. Those people often come in to LIFT-UP without any resources or nearby family members to rely on.
The fourth type of homeless people, Freseman said, are the job-seeking homeless people who are looking for employment or who have found employment but cannot yet find or afford a home.
"To benefit our business community, which eventually benefits our entire community, we have something of a community responsibility to help people temporarily so that they have a roof over the heads until they get a job, get established and get enough money to support themselves," Freseman said.
Because those three other types of homeless people are not necessarily transient, the Community Cares Program cannot solve their longer-term problems.
"There's nothing available to house somebody who needs more than one night," Freseman said.
When the city and LIFT-UP cannot help the homeless, they often go to churches, Freseman said.
One of the churches that opens its doors to the community at all hours of the night is St. Paul's Episcopal Church on Oak Street.
The Rev. Betty Ralston said the church gets an average of about two people a night who sleep in the sanctuary. They usually find a spot on the floor or in the pews, she said.
"The church doors have never been locked," Ralston said.
The church does not offer other services, such as bathrooms or food, for the homeless people, Ralston added.
Recently, however, the one-night stays have been extended to the point where some people are abusing the privilege, Ralston said. While the numbers of homeless people have not necessarily increased, some have been staying for multiple nights, she said.
"We're not an alternate to some other form of housing," Ralston said. "Camping out in church is not what we're about."
That's why Freseman said he thinks Routt County needs a more long-term solution to the homeless problem. He said one of his goals since he took over the job in June was to create a homeless shelter that could provide temporary housing for longer periods.
It is Freseman's New Year's resolution to get the community involved in the issue and try to find a property that might be suitable to use as a homeless shelter.
He said he thinks a house that could hold about a dozen beds would be optimum, but he first wants to find out what's available.