Alida Romero didn't know what benefits exist for those experiencing homelessness when she fled her home country of Venezuela and came to the U.S. as a refugee.
Romero, who had taught at a university in her home country, was struggling to find housing and only qualified for low-paying cleaning jobs.
“To come with the trauma of persecution, I felt terrorized,” she said, speaking in Spanish through an English translator. “The door was shut on me.”
Romero spoke about her lived experience with homelessness during an April 20 forum at the Sheridan Municipal Center, which featured a line-up of speakers who shared the struggles, and solutions, to the unhoused crisis in the area.
The event was sponsored by a network of nonprofits, including Change the Trend and the South Metro Community Foundation, which put on similar forums in Englewood and Littleton last year.
Mike Sandgren, who leads Change the Trend and has been active with the Tri-Cities Homelessness Policy Group, made up of leaders in the cities of Englewood, Littleton and Sheridan, said rising homelessness in the region is no longer debatable.
“The question has really evolved into ‘what are we doing about this?’” Sandgren said.
Speakers used the question to explore their own role in addressing homelessness, which can be people living on a street corner or families doubled up with friends.
Jorge Sholz, who works for the Sheridan Schools District on behalf of the federal McKinney-Vento anti-homelessness program, said there are about 300 families who are homeless within the district.
"Our families have to make a choice, and their choice is 'we either have to eat, or we pay rent,'" Sholz said.
Sholz said many of these families couch surf, staying with other family or friends for temporary periods of time before moving onto the next accommodation. Some, he said, don't even consider themselves homeless.
"A family of four living in one bedroom, sometimes they may not see it as a big deal," Sholz said.
Between January and March, Sholz said the McKinney-Vento program has been able to provide rent assistance to 15 families and 32 children, helping them escape housing insecurity.
Sholz said the results for some children have been higher school attendance and improved grades. But much remains to be done.
"It is a big task," Sholz said. "And hopefully our numbers will be a lot better next quarter and on and on and on."
Sandra Blythe-Perry, who runs the nonprofit Integrated Family Community Services, said before the COVID-19 pandemic, her team was helping about 600 people per month. Now it's about 6,000, with the nonprofit aiding in food insecurity through its food bank as well as with rental assistance.
But with demand so high and federal assistance dollars beginning to dry up, "agencies just like us run out of money so quickly,” Blythe-Perry said.
Sometimes the task for helping the unhoused falls to a community center, such as at Sheridan's Recreation Center, which provides vouchers for showers, among other resources.
“We will not turn anybody away,” said Eddie Kanoza, the recreation center's director, who urged community members to show empathy for those who are homeless. “You need to step back … everybody’s a person."
Empathy has become a guiding principle for the co-responder program between the Sheridan Police Department and AllHealth Network, a nonprofit mental health resource offering counseling and crisis services.
When responding to possible mental health-related situations, which often can involve someone who is homeless, Sheridan police are accompanied by a licensed AllHealth clinician.
The partnership has made a "huge difference" said Police Chief Jeffrey Martinez.
"We get training as law enforcement officers on how to deal with these issues, but by no means are we the experts," Martinez said.
Andrea Martin is one of those clinicians who will join Martinez's officers when needed to help deescalate situations and better respond to someone in crisis.
"I’m able to build a rapport with people in a way that’s maybe not as threatening as having a gun on my belt," Martin said, adding the relationship between mental health and homelessness can be complex, with one issue sometimes excavating the other.
But tension is still felt when crimes are committed by someone experiencing homelessness, especially in the business community. Nick Ventrella, who helps maintain stock for the Target in Sheridan, said shoplifting is not always black and white and that incidents need to be handled on a case-by-case basis.
He said since being in his line of work long enough, he's tried to avoid involving police, especially when someone may be stealing equipment to sleep in or food.
“It doesn’t feel good to put a person in that situation,” Ventrella said.
The Sheridan store now has a policy to buy food and drink for someone who may be homeless and Ventrella said it is also working with Change the Trend to provide Target gift cards for newly-housed people to buy furniture and essentials for their home.
As these smaller solutions were presented, Sheridan City Manager Devin Granbery, who was not a speaker but listening in on the conversation, spoke up.
“What homelessness boils down to is housing," Granbery said. "We’ve got to house people better than we do."
He said many who are homeless can't take full advantage of the resources and services that exist until they are housed. He said in neighboring cities like Englewood and Littleton, housing can be a "touchy political subject."
"And we’ve got to get over it," Granbery said.
Granbery's comments echoed earlier sentiments from Martin, who said while mental health can be a factor for why someone falls into homelessness, the economic crush many feel can't be understated.
"And I don’t think we talk about that enough," she said.
Data shows that, at least for the tri-cities area, this is true.
A University of Denver study conducted in 2019 and into 2020 found that the top five reasons why individuals reported being homeless were all economic. Loss of a job, inability to pay rent and housing price increases were among some of the leading causes.
For Romero, who is now housed in an apartment, homelessness won't be solved unless all aspects of a community are willing to put in the work.
“I want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem,” she said. “I think we’re all one, and we need to help each other.”
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