FREMONT COUNTY — A few years ago, elected leaders in Cañon City knew they needed to address what was becoming a growing issue in the community- the number of people without a home.
Mayor Ashley Smith says in 2019, 395 households were homeless in Cañon City.
"For a small community that's a really big deal," Smith said, "it was something that whether we wanted to or not we had to address it."
That's when the city learned about a scholarship through Kaiser Permanente for a national program called "Built for Zero". The program uses certain practices to try and end homelessness in communities across the United States.
After attending a convention, Smith says they got to work in addressing at least one community especially vulnerable to homelessness: veterans.
Dee Dee Clement is the Executive Director of Loaves and Fishes Ministry in Canon City, she says addressing homelessness in Fremont County is something that's been ongoing for years. The ministry has put in a lot of hours over the years working to help people get back on their feet and into housing.
"Homelessness is not a one agency problem, this is truly a community problem and it takes a lot of collaboration," Clement said.
Clement, along with a group of community leaders started tackling homelessness with a big outreach effort. By constantly collecting data on the number of veterans and others facing homelessness, they used a database to understand the challenges people were facing, as well as getting contact info, specifically their name and barriers they're facing. A personalized approach beyond the raw numbers in what's known as a "by-name list".
"Before this, there was no way of tracking our progress the only way we knew how many people we had homeless was with our annual count," Clement said.
The outreach is something Mayor Smith says was met with backlash in the beginning.
"[people were saying] Why are you talking to these people? they're bleeding my tax money, they shouldn't even be here they should be getting bus tickets out of town," Smith said. After some initial backlash, Smith says it led to dozens of community members showing up saying they wanted to help address the problem. Which helped create the larger-scale outreach program needed in the community.
"It's not a one size fits all, everyone has different needs and by getting those solutions personalized it has made all the difference," Smith said.
Clement says by focusing on a single homeless population, it's helped them discover the needs and challenges to address chronic homelessness.
"We tried to tackle the whole problem all at once, and instead tackle one population first," Clement said, which led them to start their focus on veteran homelessness.
In Fremont County, a couple dozen were identified- through the program they have now identified of those discovered through the program, three remain homeless.
Often times some of the biggest challenges are beyond homelessness itself. Clement says many who are homeless in Fremont County are battling mental health and addiction issues. In some cases, it's a matter of not having identification. The group has worked to get people things like driver's licenses and resources to battle addiction.
With the hours and focus on veteran homelessness, Fremont County reached what's known as "functional zero" to ending veteran homelessness. This means the community knows of every veteran experiencing homelessness and can ensure fewer veterans are experiencing homelessness.