Homeless report shared

ALAMOSA—La Puente sheltered 707 individuals in the 2016 calendar year, according to their recently released report. Though homelessness decreased in Colorado, La Puente hasn't seen any significant changes and maintained an average level.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) 2016 homeless report found a 32 percent decrease in the number of homeless people in Colorado on a single night since 2010.

For the past 16 years, however, La Puente has sheltered 600-800 homeless people annually. La Puente Executive Director Lance Cheslock believes it's because of a decrease in migrant workers and an increase of people looking for affordable housing, what he calls urban refugees.

According to the San Luis Valley Development Resources Group's 2016 statistical profile for the Valley, the population was 46,132 for 2014. The same report estimates that there were 18,437 occupied housing units that year in the Valley.

To compare, the entire state's population was 5.353 million with 2.066 million occupied housing units. It should be noted that this is not a homelessness rate since multiple people can live in one housing unit.

Cheap land and low housing costs have attracted people to the Valley. Yet due to socioeconomic circumstances it doesn't mean people are always better off.

"They get displaced because they think the cost of living is more affordable, which it is, but there are no jobs to support it because we have twice the rate of unemployment," said Cheslock.

2015's unemployment rate for the Valley was 5.7 percent, according to the DRG report. For the entire state of Colorado it was 3.8 percent.

La Puente hasn't had more than 800 people sheltered annually because the number of migrant workers has decreased over the years. In the early 90s seasonal workers were roughly 40 percent of La Puente's sheltered population.

"We still serve quite a few but not nearly that amount," Cheslock said. "Every year that changes and drops further because of immigration policy and migrant camps being torn down." Cheslock estimates that 1,200 to 1,500 total workers come to the Valley each fall, down from 4,500.

Because of the seasonal changes, Cheslock has issues with the one-night counts in January and believes the HUD report isn't entirely accurate. "City shelter numbers are highest in the winter and rural shelter numbers are highest in the working season in the fall," said Cheslock. On Wednesday La Puente had 45 people sheltered. Since it is a transitional facility it can't house people for more than 30 days.

One year Cheslock pushed the state to have the count in August. "Our numbers were higher on a per capita basis by far," he said.

There is also the difference between sheltered and unsheltered homelessness. HUD reported that 7,611 people were located in emergency shelters or transitional housing programs while 2,939 people were unsheltered during that single night in January of 2016.

"What would you call someone who is homeless? Someone who has no regular stable housing, right? Is that a couch surfer or someone sleeping on the floor? It's so variable,” Cheslock said.

"Then the definition changed to someone living in housing not fit for human habitation. That means housing without running water, electricity or a source of heat."

In 2015 La Puente went and counted people who lived in substandard housing in remote areas.

"We surveyed over 950 people in the Valley. During that count our rate of homelessness was seven times the per capita rate of Denver. That was almost 10 percent of the entire state total," Cheslock said.

Cheslock added that those people are safe, but it's precarious. "Ones that are in a vulnerable position have been stabilized because the vulnerable ones hit the radar screen. You have to excavate for the less vulnerable.

"The state can be saying we have a downward trend, but what also isn't being told is that the rural numbers are disproportionately, on a per capita basis, way higher than urban areas."

Though La Puente's numbers remain steady, Alamosa School District has witnessed less homeless students. In 2015 the district had identified 116 homeless students: 24 in kindergarten through second grade, 35 in third through fifth grade, 33 at Ortega Middle School and 24 at Alamosa High School. According to the DRG report the K-12 enrollment for Alamosa County for the fall of 2015 was 2,544 students. It was 7,723 for the entire Valley.

Last year the district identified only 68 students as homeless.

"We just need to make sure we're doing a good job of identifying all of these kids," said Assistant Superintendent Carrie Zimmerman during the Nov. 14 school board meeting.

La Puente will take any age-eligible kids and assist them with their Positive Activities Lead to Success (PALS) program. Unfortunately, they can't do much more since it's not legal for them to shelter unaccompanied minors.

"Homelessness is viewed as problem to be solved," Cheslock said Wednesday. "That's really valiant. But homelessness is a symptom of lack of affordable housing and the lack of care for mentally ill. It's a symptom of unemployment and underemployment. There's a whole network of community issues."