Colorado Daily – By Karen Antonacci
Staff members with a local nonprofit organization — HOPE — used to travel around Longmont in a van and hand out meals to people experiencing homelessness.
Due to the changing nature of how Boulder County addresses homelessness, now a handful of Longmont residents have taken it upon themselves to traverse the city and hand out food and supplies to people who seem down on their luck.
A few weeks before Christmas, Melissa Brim and Stephanie Elmarr started asking for donations for various families on the Facebook group Longmont Neighbors Helping Neighbors. They got such a response that they soon broke off and created their own group, Longmont Helping Hands. They’re now up to 250 members on Facebook.
Since the start of the new year, the group has collected supplies to make sack lunches, hot meals, blankets and other essentials, loaded them into vans and driven around and handed them out people experiencing homelessness.
Elmarr was homeless for six months and said she can’t stand to see someone out on the streets without food or other essentials.
“It was a different, dark time but I bounced back and I’ve gotten my own home and I just love to help people,” she said. “It’s always been a second nature, I guess. If I have extra stuff and I can bless others, then I will. I hate to see anybody homeless. Six months homeless was a long time in and out of shelters with kids — my three boys and I lived in my van the rest of the time.”
Brim said she wanted to help because she feels it’s just the right thing to do.
“We do whatever we can do and that’s what it’s about. We pay our bills and then whatever’s left over, we do what we can do,” Brim said. “I have a big heart. I love people. When I see people who need something, it breaks my heart.”
Brim and Elmarr’s grass roots system of helping people relies on Facebook. Someone in the group can ask for something and the members will try to get it to them on the honor system without expecting anything in return. On Sundays, group members have gotten together to cook hot meals and hand them out. Other times, they’ve worked to get someone’s car battery replaced.
“We just trust our gut and our heart and we pray about it. Around Christmas time, we did so many batteries. We put new batteries in two people’s cars. Plus, donated four brand new tires for someone and another member helped us get a battery charged for someone,” Brim said. “We did Christmas miracles everyday and I cried almost every day. It was like ‘Oh, now someone needs some food to go with their ham’ and someone would say, ‘Oh I can do that.'”
Elmarr said that she wanted to do something on her own to help homeless people rather than donate items or her time to an existing nonprofit because she didn’t feel they helped her when she was struggling.
“Every time I would try to go to one of the organizations that I used to try to get myself on my feet, they would always turn us away or always give us such limited food and resources, so we stopped going,” she said. “We got more out of doing it ourselves rather than going to one of the bigger places like the OUR Center.”
Changes in the way services are provided
As local nonprofit organizations that serve homeless people transition to a new model of service designed to get people out of homelessness and into housing, officials said that there have been changes for the people they serve, but that ultimately the new system offers a better outcome for the community.
Internally called coordinated entry but rebranded as Homeless Solutions for Boulder County, the system united nonprofits and government agencies around providing services for homeless people designed to get them housed.
The system revolves around getting people assessed and identifying what services they need and whether they need long-term sheltering or short-term assistance while staff works to get them back into housing.
The change led to some changes in how the nonprofits operate.
For example, instead of handing out meals from a van during evening street outreach, HOPE now hosts an evening meal for people who have gone through the coordinated entry assessment and the van is on a “Search and Save” mission — transporting people to the meal location, offering snacks and educating people about what services are available.
“We’re out there every single night and if someone wants transportation to the navigation services location, we do that and we connect folks with services if they haven’t learned about coordinated entry,” HOPE Executive Director Lisa Searchinger said. “If they refuse to go for whatever reason and it’s bad weather, we provide blankets, socks and hand warmers if we have them. Search and Save is really to connect people with services and educate them.”
At the OUR Center, someone who walks in off the street will be asked to go through a five-minute assessment where they’re asked to produce some sort of photo identification and set up with an appointment with a navigation counselor.
They have up to three weeks to keep that appointment, during which time they can still receive services from the OUR Center, executive director Edwina Salazar said.
“We had to know the folks who are coming and going in the building. The registration process does involve an ID and if you don’t have an ID, we help you get an ID — just something that signifies that you are a resident of the Longmont area because that’s the service area we’ve carved out and the area we have funding for,” Salazar said.
Salazar said the change led to a temporary drop in the number of meals the OUR Center was serving — from 400 down to a little over 200.
“We’re now pretty well back up to 400 though, so people over time decided that ‘Oh, it is worth me going through that five-minute process,'” Salazar said, adding that the separate appointment with a navigation counselor takes about 45 minutes and covers things like how to get into the dental clinic or sign up for SNAP benefits.
‘We want to have the conversation’
Even though the Facebook groups of Longmont residents are doing something separately from the Homeless Solutions for Boulder County system, officials said that it’s not necessarily harmful.
Jennifer Biess, Boulder County homeless services systems manager, said that the groups may be helping a different population than the county is focused on — people that are housed but are experiencing food insecurity, for example.
“I don’t think it’s either helpful or harmful to our overall system,” Biess said. “If people are doing other great things in the community because they’re compassionate and civically engaged community members, that’s great. But really what our system is about is just something a little different. It’s about how do we better manage our shelter resources and focus on those housing exit strategies.”
The Longmont Housing Opportunities Team — a consortium of nonprofits and government agencies who work on homelessness — will host a community meeting on March 19 to start the conversation about what the Facebook groups are doing.
The forum will be held at the Longmont Senior Center, 910 Longs Peak Ave., although there is not a time confirmed yet. People interested in attending can contact Michele Waite at Michele.Waite@LongmontColorado.gov or Salazar at Edwina@ourcenter.org for more information.
“We want to reach out and have the conversation with folks in the community who are wanting to help and find out more about their areas of interest,” said Karen Roney, Longmont community services director. “We want to talk about the opportunity to join with these efforts of Homeless Solutions for Boulder County if they want to. We’re not here to control the world.”
Roney, Biess, Salazar and Searchinger said that it’s not so much that the Longmont Helping Hands group is harmful, but that it could be more helpful if residents were educating people about the different resources available to homeless folks.
As for Brim and Elmarr, they hope to expand their group and explore becoming an official nonprofit.
“I’m not going to pass a hungry soul up,” Brim said.