Living on the edge in Southwest Colorado

Groups to probe local homeless and struggling populations

A coalition of regional social-service agencies and volunteers will canvass Southwest Colorado next week to evaluate the scope of area homelessness.

The Regional Housing Alliance of La Plata County, Manna Soup Kitchen and Housing Solutions for the Southwest are spearheading the effort in La Plata County, with logistical support from Gov. John Hickenlooper’s office and financial backing from BP and Vectra Bank.

Archuleta, Montezuma, San Juan and Dolores counties also are taking part.

During three days, volunteers will interview individuals and families who are either homeless or living “on the edge” with a survey tool called the Vulnerability Index.

The index has been used by Community Solutions, a New York-based nonprofit, for almost a decade. It asks a series of questions to identify which demographics are most at risk and to mobilize a community response.

RHA Executive Director Jennifer Lopez is prepared for the data to deliver some surprises.

“We have assumptions about this population. But every time we look closer into it, those assumptions are blown out of the water,” she said.

The survey gets personal, covering issues such as chronic illnesses, substance abuse and domestic violence. As a result, some participants may see it as “prying or invasive,” according to Manna director Sarah Wakefield. Others may gladly embrace the rare opportunity to share their life stories. All responses are voluntary and confidential.

Organizers say the project is a test case because most other Vulnerability Index drives have been in urban settings.

“It’ll be interesting to see how this goes,” said Gary Sanford, advisor to Hickenlooper on homeless initiatives. “The right people are at the table.”

Certain survey questions are being tailored to address Southwest Colorado’s unique demography.

“Explicit homelessness doesn’t resonate as much in rural communities, although it’s certainly there,” Sanford said. “Instead, the people might be sleeping on a friend’s couch, or staying with family, or living week-to-week in a motel room. Those people, they’re more hidden.”

Lopez said volunteers are still needed for surveying and data entry.

After a training session Monday night, volunteers will work three-hour shifts Tuesday through Thursday. They will hit the streets, temporary encampments, and what Sanford called “touchpoints,” places in the community where vulnerable people often turn for help. Here, that includes the Women’s Resource Center, La Plata Youth Services, Hilltop House and San Juan Basin Health Department.

A summary of preliminary findings will be given 11 a.m. Friday, July 20 at Manna.

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