“Will Work for Food”: Street people seem to be on the rise in Cortez. What are the causes and what can be done?

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Panhandlers are a common sight in Cortez at places such as Walmart and City Market.

Panhandlers are a common sight in Cortez at places such as Walmart and City Market. Photo by Gail Binkly.

On a gorgeous, preternaturally warm day in late October, I was strolling to the Walmart in Cortez when I noticed two men sitting on a shady slope above the northwest entrance to the parking lot.

One, a short man with unkempt, graying hair and a lot of missing teeth, looked to be in his 60s. The other was tall and thin and much younger, perhaps in his 40s. Each had a bicycle lying beside him in the grass. Though they were near the spot where panhandlers usually stand with signs seeking handouts, right now they were just munching sandwiches and talking.

“Nice day,” I said, and they agreed. I climbed up to where they were.

“Doing some cycling?” I asked.

The younger man shook his head. “Just sitting here,” he said. “I’m homeless.”

I looked at the other, and he nodded. “Me, too.”

‘Move on’

Street people of all types can be seen around Cortez in numbers that seem greater than in the past. Once upon a time, the city’s vagrants primarily congregated in the central park complex or at City Market. Most were older alcoholics who were referred to, affectionately or not, as “the park rangers.” Many were well-known to law enforcement and local citizens.

Now, there seem to be more street people throughout the city, and many of them aren’t familiar to the citizenry.

Pedestrians strolling through Cortez’s Carpenter Natural Area around dusk often notice two or three young men gathered near the mostly dry pond, sipping from plastic bottles of clear liquid. Empty bottles litter the mud.

Every day, men and sometimes women bearing cardboard signs stand at the entrances to Walmart and City Market, begging for money or work. People in grubby clothes, shouldering grimy backpacks, walk along Main Street to points unknown. One chilly night in October, two young men curled up and slept in front of the restrooms in Centennial Park, snoring loudly in the deep sleep of the intoxicated.

The increased visibility of street people combined with the number of unfamiliar faces has caused some unease.

“I have had a number of people call and say, ‘I can’t get into Walmart without being accosted, without seeing someone standing out there’,” Cortez Mayor Karen Sheek told the Four Corners Free Press. “Lots of people say, ‘arrest those folks, drive them out of town’.

“Well, guess what, the ACLU doesn’t like you to do that.”

In 2015, in a case involving an Arizona church, the Supreme Court ruled 9-0 that regulations that impose differing restrictions on different types of signs according to their content are unconstitutional. Attorneys with the American Civil Liberties Union have successfully argued that the ruling applies to signs held by panhandlers and that panhandling is a form of protected free speech.

“It sounds good [to some people] to have our officers say ‘move on’, but that opens you up for a lawsuit,” Sheek said.

Some people link the increase in transients and street people to Colorado’s legalization of cannabis. Montezuma County Sheriff Steve Nowlin has urged locals to watch an hour-long video by DrugFree Idaho called “Chronic State: How Marijuana Normalization Impacts Communities.” The video includes interviews with people in Denver and Pueblo who say there has been a surge in homelessness since the drug was legalized for recreational use in 2012. The theory is that people come to the state to enjoy legal marijuana but can’t find work – or never planned to look for it – and instead wind up panhandling to pay for pot.

A dozen citizens expressed similar concerns on Sept. 11 at a public hearing before the Cortez City Council over a proposal for a new pot shop on the city’s east side.

But is marijuana truly behind the increase in street people?

“I would be inclined to say no,” Sheek said. “It’s not only happening here.”

Blurring the picture

The rate of homelessness in the United States stands at about 17 people per 10,000, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. That’s reportedly the lowest rate since the count began in 2007. The information comes from the January 2017 Point-in-Time count, the most recent national estimate.

However, the count found more than half a million people (553,742) experiencing homelessness across the country. And the total number (not the rate) ticked up, by 0.7 percent, between 2016 and 2017, the first increase since the 2008 recession.

Rates in different states vary widely. Colorado’s is listed as 19.7 per 10,000 people – the highest rate among the Four Corners states. (Arizona is at 12.9, New Mexico at 11.9, and Utah at 9.3.) None of the three other states have legalized recreational marijuana.

Homelessness in Colorado rose 8 percent between 2013 and 2017, according to The Guardian newspaper, and 100,000 new residents migrated to the state in 2015.

Those statistics might point to cannabis as a contributing factor in the state’s homeless population, but other numbers blur the picture. For instance, the state with the highest homelessness rate is Hawaii, at 51 per 10,000 residents, where recreational pot is not legal. And according to a report by the University of Denver, Colorado’s homeless population grew by 600 percent from the late 1990s to 2010, long before marijuana was legalized.

“Marijuana is part of the picture of homelessness, but not all of it,” said Laurie Knutson, executive director of The Bridge Shelter in Cortez, which offers overnight housing during the cold months of the year. “It’s still connected to the continual ramping up of housing costs. Those numbers are rising across the country. You can’t seem to build affordable housing fast enough to keep ahead of it.”

Knutson said the first year that pot was legally available, there was “a huge uptick” in homeless numbers across Colorado. Since then, however, the numbers have stabilized both statewide and locally.

The Bridge Shelter in Cortez is building a new facility on Empire Street to provide overnight housing for the homeless, but it won’t be open for use this season.

The Bridge Shelter in Cortez is building a new facility on Empire Street to provide overnight housing for the homeless, but it won’t be open for use this season. Photo by Gail Binkly.

Last year the Bridge recorded 1,000 fewer bed-nights (one person staying a single night) than the previous year, but served two more individuals than the year before, Knutson said, meaning the people being served didn’t remain as long in the area.

“People are definitely coming from all over,” she said. “The last few years have seen a more transient population. They’re coming but not staying as long, moving from town to town more frequently than they used to.”

Not much work

But the two men I talked to at Walmart both said they were locals. The older man said he was born and raised in Aztec, N.M., and had worked for the oil and gas industry. The younger one said he was from Cortez and does all types of work, particularly construction. “But there isn’t much this time of year,” he said.

The older man – whose arms and legs trembled and twitched as he talked – said he isn’t looking for work at this point. “I spent 42 years busting my butt and I’m through,” he said. “Just hanging out.”

Neither one appeared to be intoxicated or under the influence of drugs.

The prevalence of homelessness in Colorado may seem perplexing given that the state’s economy has been booming. According to a report titled Guide to Economic Mobility in Colorado, by the nonprofit Bell Policy Center, the state had the country’s second-lowest unemployment rate in August 2017, 2.4 percent.

Yet the same report provides another statistic that is critical: Average weekly wages, adjusted for inflation, have been essentially flat since 2000. Meanwhile, housing costs have soared.

‘A refugee crisis’

“We’re losing lower-income established neighborhoods across the country,” Knutson said. “Look at downtown Denver. How much is being lost to huge expensive condos going up? And as more and more people rent houses to Airbnb, how much affordable housing are we losing to that?

“This issue is really complicated. It would be nice to say it’s all marijuana sales, but that’s not true. There’s some reason to say marijuana has increased some of the homelessness, but it’s also rising in some states that don’t have legal marijuana.”

Three years ago, Knutson said, the Bridge had a surge in senior clients. “One-quarter were over 55, so what caused that? That’s not pot,” she said.

“To me it’s like we have a refugee crisis in our own country. You’re not traveling in big caravans and attracting the attention of the news, but there are a lot of people who are homeless. There’s no larger city that’s not inundated, so some people are going to rural areas.”

In addition to stagnant wages and high housing costs, Knutson said, another contributing factor is mental illness and addiction, coupled with a lack of help for sufferers.

“There is very little access for mental health and addictions treatment,” she said. “Those who can afford it get it, and those who can’t, don’t.

“Rehab facilities are closing, which is counter-intuitive when we need more treatments. That drives more people onto the streets because addicts eventually get kicked out of their homes. Addiction is an ugly disease and if there aren’t places to treat it, it remains untreated.”

Sheek agreed that there are multiple factors involved in homelessness. “It’s nationwide. It’s much worse in the bigger cities and I don’t know what the answer is.”

For some people, not working has become their occupation, she said. “There is work out there if people really, really want to do something. We are seeing generational poverty now, second and third generations of people, this is how they live. How do you break that cycle?”

But merely having a job doesn’t guarantee that someone can afford a home.

“There are plenty of homeless people working part-time,” Knutson said. “Looking at the employers who will hire people with low job skills or, God forbid, a felony, it’s basically going to be fast food, which probably means minimum wage. And many of those companies don’t want to employ people full-time so they don’t have to provide benefits.

“If you can’t survive on a full-time minimum wage job, imagine working just part-time. If you get a few shifts a week you can keep yourself in food and pot, if that’s your thing, or sports gambling or whatever. But people just don’t have enough income to live independently.”

In 2018, the fair-market rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Colorado averaged $987 per month, according to a report by the nonprofit National Low Income Housing Coalition, Out of Reach: The High Cost of Housing, . But a person working full-time at the state’s minimum wage of $10.20 an hour could afford to spend no more $530 a month on rent, based on the traditional formula that rent should cost no more than 30 percent of income.

“People may resent the fact there are people on the streets, but a lot of them are working part time,” Knutson said. “Most of us in this town who have a full-time job are pretty lucky. Most of my staff have another job.”

The back of a pickup

Two-thirds of the homeless are staying in some type of shelter or transitional housing, according to the Point in Time count, but the other third inhabit “places not meant for human habitation,” such as cardboard boxes, alleys or open fields.

I asked the two men at Walmart where they were sleeping. “In the back of a pickup,” they both replied.

“It gets pretty cold sometimes,” the younger one added.

The Bridge shelter traditionally opens in October, but this year it lost its longtime home in the old Justice Building in Cortez’s Centennial Park when the structure was purchased by the Children’s Kiva Montessori School.

The Bridge is building a new facility on land donated years ago by Montezuma County, but it won’t be ready this season, so the shelter had to seek a temporary home. The Grace Fellowship Evangelical Free Church on Chestnut Street offered to house the Bridge’s clients and staff from 5 p.m. to 7 a.m. daily. The city council recently approved a conditionaluse permit for the operation, but the shelter wasn’t set to open until Nov. 1.

‘Working really hard’

Sheek is proud of the steps Cortez and the broader community have taken to try to alleviate the problem of homelessness, particularly in contrast to Durango, where homelessness has become a source of endless controversy. Hundreds of people are reportedly camping in the woods near the city because they have no place to go. Durango has a shelter, but it is considered “high-barrier,” meaning it doesn’t accept people who are high or intoxicated. Durango also has a detox facility operated by Axis Health, but it isn’t a shelter and it releases people as soon as they sober up.

The Bridge, on the other hand, is a “low-barrier” shelter that will house the intoxicated, although in recent years only about a quarter of its clients have been under the influence.

Knutson said she has warned people in Durango that the Bridge won’t be able to handle any overflow this year. “I’ve let Durango know – the hospital, Axis Health, etc. – that you can’t send us people this year. They always have, because they have more-restrictive entries and more people. But this year we are already going to be turning people away.”

The church can handle a maximum of 33 clients a night, Knutson said. Last year, the Bridge averaged 45-47 people nightly, “and well into the 50s when it was cold.”

“When I see what’s happening in Durango I think little-bitty Cortez is head and shoulders above that,” Sheek said. “We have a group of private citizens that saw a need and addressed it [through the Bridge]. Come spring they will have a building. We provide meals six days a week [at soup kitchens].

“And lots of our nonprofits are dealing with issues like food insecurity. I think for a little community of less than 9,000 we’re working really hard.”

But there may be more that could be done, she said. She mentioned the approach being taken by the City of Albuquerque, which sends a van around every morning to contact panhandlers and ask them if they would like a day’s work. The vast majority say yes, according to a TED Talk by Mayor Richard J. Berry. They earn $9 an hour to do chores, and get a meal at the jobsite. At day’s end they have the opportunity to stay in a shelter and be connected with counseling and other services. The program has reportedly been highly successful.

Compassionate people who see someone on the street are often motivated to give them money, but both Sheek and Knutson advised against it.

Knutson said the folks she sees holding up signs around Cortez aren’t usually clients of the Bridge. “Most of them I don’t know,” she said. “There is a huge group of people who don’t want to be in a shelter, probably because they don’t want to comply with our rules. I never give money to panhandlers.”

Sheek agreed. “If you feel compassion, give to the Good Samaritan [food pantry], the Bridge or your local church,” she said. “It’s better than giving it to somebody and you don’t know if they’re going to buy a sandwich, or something to drink, or just pocket it and say, ‘Sucker!’. I know that seems unkind, but the truth is, giving somebody just a handout is probably not the kindest thing you can do.”

But the impulse to give money is strong. Neither of the men I talked to at Walmart asked me for anything, yet I felt apologetic that I was carrying no cash and had nothing to offer.

I said something to that effect and they shrugged it off. “That’s okay,” they said.

“Well, hang in there,” I said lamely.

“We don’t have much choice,” one answered.

And then, not knowing what else to do, I walked on.

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From November 2018.