By Jake Altinger, News Editor
Over 100 students and faculty gathered in the Centennial Campus Atrium on Valentine’s Day to brainstorm ways to help PPCC’s homeless students succeed in college and beyond at Have A Heart For PPCC’s Homeless Students: Finding Creative Solutions.
Fourteen groups of five to eight students, with at least one faculty member per group, discussed their experiences with homelessness and ways that PPCC might be able to combat it. At the end of the event, a representative from each group shared their ideas with the whole.
Many of the suggestions were aimed directly at housing homeless students. Two of the most common ideas were building apartments or dormitories available for free or low rent to homeless and/or low-income students and creating a program to match homeless students with PPCC faculty, employees, or other students who have a room available for rent.
While both ideas were popular among the attendees, they also came with criticism. For instance, many students were skeptical about building apartments or dorms because of how long the project would take and how it would be paid for.
“If you want to raise the cost of tuition, that’s a good way to do it,” said Travis Hollingsworth.
Other students were more optimistic about such a project, pointing out that much of the construction, plumbing, electric wiring, etc. could be done by the PPCC students training to enter those fields as a massive, collaborative Service Learning Project.
Others expressed concern about the legal liability of the school having students house other students.
“If the school is assigning rooms, that could be a real problem,” said Kevin Kosewicz.
Dr. Warren Munick, Chair of PPCC’s Economics Department and faculty advisor of the Entrepreneurship program, agreed that the school ought to avoid such a scenario and simply connect those in need with those who can help. From that point, it’s up to the two parties to work out a contract between them, like any landlord and tenant.
Attendees also suggested a variety of other ways PPCC could help homeless students, short of actually housing them. The ideas ranged from opening the gym and showers at Centennial to homeless students from dusk to dawn, to building a laundromat for students to use, to creating an app for students to trade and share supplies and books or help one another with rideshares and carpooling.
Many also emphasized the need to raise awareness about homelessness at PPCC and do a better job connecting homeless and other struggling students with resources outside the school, such as nonprofits and government assistance. For instance, Dr. Munick noted that PPCC no longer has staff available to help students fill out applications for MedicAid, TANF, and Food Stamps although they used to in the past.
The discussion was essentially the public debut of a long-term entrepreneurial effort launched by Brian Pharies, Interim President of the Entrepreneurs’ Club, who spoke passionately and excitedly at the opening of the event about seeing his vision finally get off the ground.
Pharies started Displaced Student Housing, a nonprofit, in 2015 as part of an on-campus venture for an Ice House class taught by Dr. Munick with the ultimate goal of ending homelessness at PPCC.
Pharies told The Paper that his intent when he started Displaced Student Housing was to create a program to match homeless students with PPCC faculty, employees, or other students who have room available – an idea favored by many of the attendees at the discussion. The program would also raise funds to compensate individuals willing to house homeless students for the additional rent, utilities, and other expenses they incur by doing so.
“I don’t like to follow the trends – I like to set them,” Pharies said, noting that the program would be the first of its kind in the Colorado Community College System.
Pharies said when he initially started the project in 2015 there were approximately 250-300 homeless students at PPCC; today there are over 1,000.
“Usually, at the major college level – UC, UCLA, big schools like that – you don’t think about homelessness, because mostly Daddy and Mommy pay [for students] to go to those big schools,” Pharies said. “But community college is made up of people who come from different demographics.”
Pharies’ has been homeless himself twice – in Los Angeles, California, and in Reno, Nevada – and that experience inspired him to help homeless students at PPCC.
“Living [in a shelter] with 250 to 500 people staying in double bunk-beds in a temperature of 53 degrees, so that disease or colds could not spread, was a sickening thing,” Pharies said. “No student trying to learn should have to struggle like that.”
An additional, indirect benefit of the program will be reducing costs to the city of Colorado Springs. Colorado taxpayers spend $43,240 a year per homeless individual on everything from arrests and legal issues to emergency medical services, according to estimates by the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless.
Pharies also expects his new program to be far more cost-effective than typical nonprofit programs. A senior official at the Housing Authority in Los Angeles, California, Pharies new personally, once admitted to him that less than half of the government funds allocated for the homeless-serving nonprofits actually make it to the street.
Before starting the program, Pharies will first compile a list of individuals at PPCC willing and able to take in homeless students and begin raising funds to compensate those individuals. Pharies said he hopes to have found enough volunteers and raised enough money to launch the program by the 2018 Fall semester.
One of the major challenges Pharies expects to confront in starting the program will be finding the homeless students in need.
“There is a difference between homeless students, who are ashamed to be homeless, and the homeless in general, who don’t care who knows they’re homeless and who doesn’t,” Pharies said. “We’ve got to get those students to open up and feel comfortable coming to us for help.”
Another challenge he reckons to encounter will be matching homeless students to volunteers whom they can live with comfortably and compatibly.
“You have to find a mix,” Pharies said. “If you’re a liberal, and I’m a right-wing Republican, that just isn’t going to gel.”
Thus far, the bulk of Pharies’ charity work has been focused on Homeless Outreach Colorado, a nonprofit subsidiary of Displaced Student Housing he also founded.
Partnering with local King Soopers grocery stores, Homeless Outreach Colorado distributes backpacks to the homeless population of Colorado Springs. Pharies fills the backpacks with gloves, coats, hats, long underwear, etc., in the winter, and with water, sunscreen, and other toiletries in the summer. Through that program, Pharies has raised over $4200 and provided 75 backpacks to homeless people in Colorado Springs since the winter of 2015.
Now, Pharies said he is refocusing his efforts on the purpose he originally had in mind when he started Displaced Student Housing with the ultimate goal of ending homelessness at PPCC.
“Backpacks for the homeless will go on the shelf, and I will focus 100 percent of my fundraising on Pikes Peak Community College – for our homeless students,” Pharies said. “Because the students – they still have a chance. The rest of the homeless have made their bed, and they’re laying in it now.”
Although he has not officially established the new program yet, Pharies has already personally found housing for six homeless students through Displaced Student Housing.
For now, anyone interested in contributing to the program, either by donating money or volunteering their spare room, as well as any homeless students who need assistance should contact Pharies directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Have A Heart For PPCC’s Homeless Students: Finding Creative Solutions was hosted by the Entrepreneurs Club, the Office of Sustainability, and the Student Government Association. King Soopers grocery stores also cosponsored the event.