Meter aid: Heimlicher plan would put money for the homeless in sober hands

       Colorado Springs City Council member Jerry Heimlicher wants to do something about the homeless problem. City Council member Jerry Heimlicher displays the first 5 of
what he hopes will eventually be 100 custom-decorated
parking meters at indoor locations around town to collect coin donations for a program intended to reduce the numbers of hardcore homeless people. 
Westside Pioneer photo
       So he's looking for parking meters.
       He can explain. The idea is to find second-hand meters and indoor places to put them. When people drop coins in the slot, they won't be paying for a parking space, they'll be helping fund programs aimed at reducing the numbers of hardcore homeless people - the kind who panhandle, camp in public and often overuse emergency response services.
       Many residents would welcome such a reduction on the Westside, which has continuing problems with vagrants who live along Fountain Creek and who surface occasionally to seek handouts along road medians or around shopping areas.
       Heimlicher, a district councilman whose area includes the Westside, joined Mayor Lionel Rivera in announcing the parking-meter plan at the July 8 meeting of City Council. Rivera said that well-meaning citizens give an estimated $1.5 million to panhandlers every year. They think they're helping down-and-outers obtain food or shelter, “but in reality 95 percent of that money goes to drugs, alcohol and cigarettes,” the mayor explained. “If the money instead was placed in meters, it would do what people think it's doing when they give it to panhandlers.”
       He and Heimlicher seek to bring the program into fruition by recruiting a volunteer contingent to coordinate various aspects of the program (including giving it a name). The lengthy list of envisioned volunteer tasks, along with additional program details, appears in a sidebar article.
       Heimlicher said he modeled the local idea from a successful program in Denver. In the Springs, the thinking is that if just 10 to 30 percent of the $1.5 million wound up in strategically located meters, that would provide an enough money to make a difference. The target is not all the people who don't have a place of their own, just the hardcore 15 to 20 percent, also known as “chronically homeless.” In Colorado Springs, that number is estimated at 2,000 people, mostly men, who have chosen that lifestyle and panhandling is how they finance it.
       So in what ways would the parking-meter money be used? According to the plan, it would be directed to Homeward Pikes Peak, the city-recognized umbrella agency on homeless issues. Heimlicher has confidence in the agency, having been a volunteer member of its board of directors for the past three years.
       In a separate interview, Homeward Pikes Peak Director Bob Holmes listed the two main areas that chronically homeless people need help: mental health (about two- thirds of them are afflicted that way, he estimated) and case management (even when they want to change their ways, they are prone to backsliding without someone to keep after them).
       “These individuals get discouraged very quickly,” Holmes said. “They get bored. Think about it. Some of them have, been drunk for 30 years. And they're not always the most industrious group. It's kind of a downward spiral.”
       A third funding need, he said, would address substance abuse, because that tends to so much a part of their lives, he said.
       Holmes predicted there might be some “pushback” from some of the hard-core types against the parking-meter program - particularly those who see in it a threat to their panhandling livelihood.
       Still and all, Holmes believes results can be attained. One factor is that as such people age they often can't handle the physical demands anymore and start looking for options. In such cases, he's found, “some of these guys are incredible.” One man he knew had been a finish carpenter. He finally decided to take advantage of available programs and go back to work. He's stayed with it and is out on his own now.
       But the remediation effort is seldom easy. Holmes described individual progress as typically “three steps forward and two steps back.”
       In the end, no matter how people feel about homelessness philosophically, Holmes can point to a hard-to-refute bottom line. The public tab for dealing with each chronically homeless person's needs - such as police and fire expenses for picking him up when he's dead drunk or for random hospital emergency costs - averages about $54,000 a year. But Holmes puts the average individual cost for turning around such a person's life at $15,000.
       Nearby examples of public impacts, just in the last year, were a shooting at a homeless camp on Fountain Creek, near the Sonic, and a fire that nearly spread out of control above Manitou Springs (the city's fire department suspected a mountain tramp of accidentally starting it).
       Heimlicher, a retired business executive, said he has personally been mystified about the chronically homeless phenomenon. The people he empathizes with are the other homeless, the 80 to 85 percent whose condition is not by choice and who all too often are parents with children who have met with misfortune. Some of these, as Holmes described them, are former middle-class families (often single mothers) who “are so profoundly embarassed by what's happened to them that it takes a long time before they go for services. It's almost like denial. They can't believe they're in that state with kids “
       The council member has no illusions about how much of a difference the parking-meter program will make, considering the social issues and that it's a volunteer effort (the city itself can spare no money besides the $20,000 it already gives annually to Homeward Pikes Peak). But Heimlicher believes it would be worse to do nothing. He compared it to an old parable about a man who saw starfish being washed up on a beach and began restoring them to the water, one at a time. Told that it wasn't worth the effort, the man replied (as he tossed a starfish back in), “It was worth it to that one.”

Westside Pioneer article