When it comes to homelessness, Alice Sueltenfuss wants any idea out there to be shared with city, state and county representatives.
Sueltenfuss, the executive director of the nonprofit Homeless Outreach Providing Encouragement, was one of four panelists to talk Thursday night about The Face of Homelessness.
“Every possible solution, let’s do it,” she told the crowd of more than 50 people. “If you have a great idea, contact your city and your county reps and let’s stop creating ordinances and rules and laws that push people away,” Sueltenfuss said.
The crowd, who had gathered outside the Longmont Museum, applauded. Thursday night’s discussion, called The Face of Homelessness, followed Boulder County Commissioners’ decision to reject an ordinance that would have banned people from living on county streets in a tent, RV or car.
Joining in the discussion was Shanan Collins, COO of the Boulder nonprofit Mother House, which helps provide a safe place for women, transgender, nonbinary people and their children; Melissa Green, executive director of Boulder’s Bridge House, which provides basic needs to those experiencing homelessness; and Tim Rakow from Longmont’s Inn Between, which provides affordable housing and support services to those in need.
Kimberly Braun, HOPE’s director of development, posed questions to the panel. Then, the public was invited to share their questions.
Throughout the discussion, the group talked about breaking down the stigma that continues to surround those who are homeless and how agencies and residents should work together to help those facing homelessness.
Collins said the mindset that people who are homeless should “just go get a job” is a preconception she hears all too often.
Collins said for someone who carries all of their possessions on their back, there are numerous obstacles to getting a job. From not having a place to shower or sleep to clothes to wear to the interview and bus fare to get to their destination.
There’s another mindset that people apply to people facing homelessness that bothers Collins. It’s the idea that the homeless should “pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” She said it takes a village to help someone facing homelessness find stability.
“That stigma in and of itself is a fallacy,” Collins said. “No one in homelessness can pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Everyone out here, we all had help to become successful in whatever endeavor that we have chosen to pursue. No one is an island unto themselves.”
While some people experiencing homelessness struggle with drug and alcohol addiction, it doesn’t fit the narrative of every person in that situation, Sueltenfuss said. Even if it does, the issue is more complex. She said some facing homelessness have had basic needs absent in their life since they were just children.
“To put people in this square of you’re a drug dealer and you’re an alcoholic, there are so many people who might have those issues, but there are reasons for it,” Sueltenfuss said. “And, not all of them are doing those behaviors.”
Rakow encouraged people who might have preconceived notions about the homeless to look at them in a new light. He reminded listeners that those experiencing homelessness are suffering from significant trauma and that being without a place to call home is also traumatic.
“If we lead and start with dignity, respect and understanding … then we can look at the next step of how we solve these things,” Rakow said. “It’s a very complex situation.”
He added that external factors are wages and their failure to keep up with the cost of living in Boulder County. Whereas someone in their 50s and up, might have been able to buy a house at two to three times their income, today, he said, the cost is likely 10 times what a person makes. This new reality needs new creative solutions, he said.
Green said she hates the stigma that those experiencing homelessness are lazy. But working every moment to survive is not an easy job.
“They are working every second of the day so much harder than we are on our most taxing day,” Green said. “They are always thinking about ‘Am I safe here? Am I going to have food tonight?’”
Green said a crack in the system is that there aren’t many “low barrier” resources for people experiencing homelessness to access. She said that means resources where those who need it can get all the help they need in one place and not have to take a bus from location to location.
“For us to really be impactful and really move the dial on homelessness, we need to start at the very beginning,” Green said. “We need a one stop shop, so those folks can go into one building and see a medical doctor right there, see a nurse, see a mental health counselor … the same day they walk in.”
Green encouraged people listening to “let go of the stigmas” and come together to “start taking care of each other.”