PS_Evan Mahaffey, Homeward Pikes Peak case manager at Harbor House, center, sits and speaks with residents. (Courtesy photo)  copy 2.jpg

Evan Mahaffey, Homeward Pikes Peak case manager at Harbor House, center, sits and speaks with residents. 

Beth Hall Roalstad fields a call every day that she never enjoys receiving.

Roalstad, the Homeward Pikes Peak executive director, has led the organization for five years and has done social work in Colorado for the past 20. 

However, taking calls from those on the brink of homelessness still deflates Roalstad.

“We get phone calls from parents of adults who are near homelessness every day,” Roalstad said. “They say ‘I’m the parent of this 40-something year old living in town and I’m making one last attempt to help.’ You can hear the fatigue and sadness in that parent’s voice.” 

Despite her experience, Roalstad also displayed that same anguish in her voice describing those phone calls. 

Jansen Howard, the Street Outreach program manager, said many of their clients suffer from a mental health challenge or have substance abuse issues.  

“Of our clients currently in our outreach program, out of 226 clients, 174 have a disability,” Howard said. “Out of these, 82 have a physical disability, 60 have a developmental disability, 110 have a chronic health issue, 123 have a mental health disorder, and 112 have a substance use disorder.”

Helping those clients isn’t as simple as having Roalstad’s number. 

“I had a phone call last week where a mom called and said, ‘My family is about to become homeless. Can you help me?’” Roalstad said. “Of course, I wanted to march her into my office and give her an apartment and give her a voucher and get her housed that day. But there’s a system. She’s probably on a list with 300 other people and I can’t just help her because she reached me on the telephone. There’s a process we have to work, and that’s the sad part. It’s not easy to help everyone.” 

Roalstad’s voice faded as she finished her explanation. The fight to help anyone experiencing homelessness is arduous, but some in the Southeast have great hopes to find solutions. 

The issues

From a family perspective, Roalstad said it’s complicated trying to assist someone with a mental illness. 

Roalstad presented a scenario where parents help a teen who has a mental health issue whom they’ve assisted throughout life. 

As the child gets older, parents attempt to steer the child in the “right direction.” This, Roalstad said, is where the divergence begins. 

“As a parent, you’re like ‘Get a job or go to school to take care of yourself,’ but this person is not interested,” Roalstad said. “That can be frustrating for the parents or caregiver. Then, you start trying harder than the person with the mental illness. ‘Maybe if I help them here, they can do what is normal.’ Then you get frustrated and you get angrier and you go ‘Forget it! You have to get out of my house.’” 

Roalstad said many families already live in a stressful situation — struggling with finances, health or another mental illness ­— and this situation creates another conflict, which pushes some to homelessness, where many exist for years. 

According to Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, nearly 70 percent of those who have experienced chronic homelessness, which SAMHSA describes as “homelessness lasting a year or longer vs. 4 or more episodes of homelessness during the past three years” have a mental illness and substance abuse issue. 

Those mental illnesses include, post-traumatic stress disorder, from homelessness or other aspects of life, schizophrenia, depression and anxiety. 

Howard during the late 2000s and early 2010s, spent four years without shelter. She said she experienced trauma prior to and after homelessness and worked to “become a productive member of society.”

Howard said grocery shopping previously triggered her PTSD from homelessness and it took time to adapt after finding a permanent shelter.   

“When I was homeless, I was always moving around and traveling the country. I never spent more than a few days in one place,” Howard said. “If you don’t become homeless because of some trauma you are definitely traumatized after experiencing homelessness. We’re working to help people exit homelessness and avoid these mental health issues.”

Street outreach 

“Lived experience is really important in this field,” Howard said.

Howard took the reins of Homeward Pikes Peak’s Street Outreach program in 2018. It was the first of its kind at the organization. 

“A lot of folks on the streets have severe mental health issues or substance abuse issues and all sorts of barriers,” Howard said. “It’s hard for them to piece together things on their own because it’s a complex system to get the help they need. Outreach is powerful and I have the ability to do whatever is needed.”

The Street Outreach program travels to encampments through the city to “literally and metaphorically meet people where they’re at.” 

Howard and the Street Outreach team, which she said has tripled since its inception, works with the Colorado Springs Police Department to locate and help the unhoused. 

“We ride with them three or four days out of the week,” Howard said. “That way, we’re able to bring the resources to their enforcement instead of people getting jailed. We can provide them a long-term solution.” 

This year, Homeward has housed 57 people in hotels and 37 of those have moved into housing with 26 of those finding permanent housing, Howard said. 

“Obviously, we’re happy to help those whom we’ve assisted so far, but we definitely want to help more,” Roalstad said.

More solutions 

Homeward and CSPD aren’t the only entities assisting the homeless with mental illnesses. 

Peak Vista is another resource unhoused have to exit homelessness, including a location in the Southeast, where according to the El Paso County Medical Society, few health care options exist. 

Peak Vista recognizes the impact homelessness has on people, which is why they work to help homeless avoid mental health issues caused by the experience.   

In a video posted to the Peak Vista Community Health Centers’ YouTube, workers at the downtown facility helped a 66-year-old homeless man exit homelessness. 

“He has a history of stroke and had difficulty performing his [activities of daily living],” said Maria Schuch, Peak Vista Nurse Care manager. “He was desperately trying to get into housing, which proved to be very difficult in Colorado Springs. It was demoralizing for him not to be able to get in a facility quickly. But with this amazing team we have, we were able to keep his spirits up.” 

Schuch said the team at Peak Vista eventually found a facility to provide shelter, which Ruben Carrillo, the Peak Vista Lead Medical Assistant, said “was a blessing.” 

“…To get at least one [patient] to come through is such a beautiful thing to see,” Carrillo said. 

When Roalstad isn’t filling in to answer a phone call, she finds other ways to help. Roalstad said there’s not much employees at Homeward aren’t willing to do to help clients. 

“We will help make appointments, find transportation, and give bus passes. If they’re on Medicaid we will help set up Medicaid transportation so they can get to appointments …” Roalstad said. “… Our clients may come to us because they’re abusing drugs or alcohol but maybe they’re doing that to self-medicate pain in order to cope with a mental illness they’ve had all their life.”  

Roalstad said the Street Outreach team has done tremendous work in the community and expects it to continue. 

Roalstad predicted the Street Outreach team has brought in around 25 percent of people they speak to during their ride alongs with CSPD. 

“The public might think that’s really low, but I’d look at that to the general population, that’s going to be pretty similar,” Roalstad said. “I would love to have every single person who has a mental health issue be able to get an appointment this week. That probably isn’t possible because there simply aren’t enough providers in the community. But we’re doing our best to help those who are unhoused and we’re not going to stop.” 

Reporter

Marcus Hill is a reporter for the Southeast Express and Schriever Sentinel. He graduated from Colorado State University-Pueblo in 2012 with a degree in Mass Communication.