December 10, 2007 – Iraq war veterans are starting to line up for free meals and a warm bed at the Boulder Shelter for the Homeless.
“Traditionally, we’ve seen veterans from Vietnam – veterans consistently have been 25 percent of the homeless population,” said Greg Harms, executive director of the shelter. “Just now, we’re starting to see veterans from our most recent war efforts.
“The longer we have protracted conflicts like the one we’re in now, the more likely there will be ramifications back home,” he said.
In this interview, Harms talks about the origins of the shelter and the growing need for its services. The shelter has applied for a Season to Share grant. His remarks have been edited for space and clarity.
Tell us about your clients
We serve about 1,000 people a year and we hear 1,000 different stories. Some are highly functional, working most days, but at jobs that might pay $7 or $8 or $9 an hour – not enough to get a foothold on an apartment in costly Boulder County. We also have folks who’ve fought addiction or mental health issues all their lives.
How did the Boulder Shelter for the Homeless get started?
A group of concerned citizens felt there needed to be a place, some shelter from the cold, for the homeless in Boulder. We started in 1982. Our 25th anniversary is coming up on Dec. 22.
Our first location was an old bus depot. Then we moved to the Alpine Motel in north Boulder. In 2003, we moved to our new building. It has 160 beds.
How did you get into this line of work?
I was on the board for five years, and I was a volunteer before that. I was in high-tech for a number of years. I have an MBA and an engineering degree. I just decided I wanted to do more than work and ski and ride my bike. So I called the shelter. I decided it was the work that I enjoy, so I made it my day job. It’s rewarding work, trying to make the world a better place. I get to apply my skill set to a cause I really believe in.
Can you talk about a case in which your agency really made a difference?
A little over a year ago we started a new program called Housing First, in which some of the chronically homeless are given permanent shelter without first necessarily proving that they’re sober and ready for the responsibility. Our very first placement was a guy who’d been on the streets for years and years – most local Boulder people would recognize him.
He was a chronic alcoholic. He’s now been housed close to 18 months. Most of that time he’s been sober. Housed and sober – that’s something that hasn’t happened to this guy in 20 years.
He’s an elderly guy, past working age and is on disability. He’s not on the street anymore, and he’s not circulating through all the support agencies like he was. He’s not showing up at the hospital emergency room. He’s not going to alcohol detox nearly as often. We’re probably actually saving the community considerable money by having him housed.
What’s the biggest need among the people you serve?
It varies. Some really need a roof over their heads. Others need mental health attention. The mental health center here in Boulder County has seen its budget cut about 25 percent over the past four years. The one generalization is that they are all poor.
We have 45 people on staff and 1,000 volunteers each year. It truly is a community shelter, supported by donations. But we can always use winter clothing, coats and hats and gloves, especially for men. Blankets we can always use.
Boulder Shelter for the Homeless
* Mission: Provide safe shelter, food, support services and an avenue to self-sufficiency for homeless adults in the community.
* Founded: 1982
* People helped: About 1,000
* Staff: 45
* Budget: $1.5 million
* Web site: bouldershelter.org