Mental illness among homeless people is nothing new. On any given morning, a few minutes in a downtown bagel shop will produce backpackers breakfasting on sugar packets and conversing with invisible friends.
Experts are seeing a rapid increase in the U.S. homeless population and a corresponding lack of services. Available and accessible healthcare is urgently needed, they warn. So far, the Colorado Springs City Council and Mayor Steve Bach have tried passing ordinances to move homeless people out of downtown – not a solution in our view.
The Pikes Peak United Way identified nearly 300 severely mentally ill homeless residents during its 2013 Homeless Point in Time Survey – 103 of those living on the street full time. That number is considerably higher than last year.
Maybe a new solution – really an old solution – is in order: the Rich Farm. The mayor might like to call it Sunrise Farm – a sustainable farming environment outside the city proper where homeless and mentally ill people can live, work and get the help they desperately need.
People living on the street cost society a bundle. Many suffer from addictions and mental and physical ailments requiring more healthcare services than their sheltered counterparts. Because help is scarce or inaccessible, they end up in expensive emergency rooms or hospital beds.
That’s not to say that strides haven’t been made. Housing First, a model brought to Colorado Springs from New York City, presupposes housing as a right and requirement for mental health stability. As such, the focus is on getting people in housing first and then helping them with their physical and mental issues.
Housing First pioneer Dr. Sam Tsemberis claims the program and others like it reduce emergency services and hospitalizations by facilitating outpatient visits. The reduction in costs partially offset outpatient and housing cost increases.
So does Colorado Springs need a few more halfway houses for the mentally ill? Maybe not!
For two months, I interviewed key players involved in mental health and housing services for the homeless, and attended meetings of the Comprehensive Homeless Assistance Providers (CHAP). My goal was to assess what has been done in the past, what worked and didn’t work, and what these key players wished would happen in the future to provide more effective mental health services.
The idea that emerged after 10 weeks of interviews and meetings is a farm where homeless people suffering from mental illness could get housing, treatment and some dignity from working for the community.
In the 1800s, they were called “poor farms,” county-run farms where indigent residents worked in the fields and cared for each other with public support. Some of the produce, grain and livestock fed the residents. They went into decline following the 1935 Social Security Act and disappeared nationally by about 1950.
The El Paso County Poor Farm was built for $25,000 in 1900 where we currently find Bear Creek Park. The county commissioners bulldozed it and turned the land over to the Parks Department almost immediately after deciding to close it in 1984.
What about a “rich farm,” a new model for helping homeless people and adding to local food supplies?
I recently visited the closest thing I could find to a rich farm, a 100-acre spread in Wellington called Harvest Farm. The Denver Rescue Mission has been operating the facility for 14 years as a home for around 70 men in its New Life Program.
The New Life Program is geared mainly towards homeless men seeking alcohol and substance abuse recovery. No mental health services are offered there, but the farm will accept men who are taking medications and attending counseling.
The program is funded mostly through donations and grants to the Denver Rescue Mission, but the farm helps out with cattle for beef, a Christmas tree farm and an annual Fall Festival for the community.
Coming around full circle, the PPJPC hopes the rich farm model can come to El Paso County. Can we discuss the possibility of Pinello Ranch, the property just north of Venetucci Farm, currently owned by Colorado Springs Utilities?
Homelessness is on the rise from our collapsing economy. Many soldiers are returning to town after multiple tours to Iraq and Afghanistan, suffering mental disorders that can lead to homelessness after being discharged by the military. Because it is harder to find jobs and affordable housing, many end up on the streets.
We need open space for homeless individuals suffering from mental disorders and new sources of local food. We urge the community to come together, find the funds and make the rich farm a new reality.
Nova Schlosser-Munselle is studying for a master’s degree from Adler School of Professional Psychology in Chicago. She served as a Y-Core Justice Intern for her community engagement practicum. Trudy Thomas and Steve Saint contributed to this report.