"Kindness in the Face of Fear and Fines"
by: Stacie S. Gonzalez
Jerima King, 61, of Colorado Springs, is known throughout the city as a fervent advocate for those experiencing homelessness. On the second Sunday of every month, you can find her and the group she helped organize, Spreading Smiles and Sandwiches, in Dorchester Park distributing much-needed supplies to those in need. You might also cross paths with King at City Council meetings where she stands up and speaks out on behalf of the less fortunate. The Springs Echo met up with King, a petite woman with an infectious smile, one late-summer afternoon to find out how she got her start and why it’s important to her to help the poor.
It’s so nice to chat with you today. Thank you. So, are you a native of Colorado Springs?
I was born in Panama City, Panama, but I have lived in Colorado Springs over 30 years - longer than I lived in my country.
You are known within the community of Colorado Springs as being a staunch ally and advocate for the homeless. How did your role as an advocate and activist come about?
I used to work at the Municipal Courthouse as an interpreter. One day as I was leaving one of the security guards showed me an article about how folks were being kicked out of the tent city they had built right next to the Springs Rescue Mission. So, I drove over there and I was just appalled to see so many elderly folks walking with every single bit of their belongings in a cart. I saw this look of “I don't know where I'm going. I know I have to leave this place, but I don't know where I can go.” Some of them had their pets inside their coats because it was cold. And I just couldn't believe that my city was doing this. That's where it started.
What did you do after that?
I looked for connections. And I found that Blackbird Outreach was having an informational meeting at Penrose Library. They were taking names of volunteers for different kinds of areas to help. One of those areas was helping fill out surveys for our folks experiencing homelessness. Then that information could be provided to United Way who would then share it with other organizations in town to try to identify which of those organizations could help.
So, I volunteered for that and I started going out on the trails with Blackbird Outreach.
What did you do when you were out on the trails?
Quite often we brought water and some toiletries and also some little propane tanks, so we would have something to give people, then we would ask them if they were interested in completing the survey. We had different forms for individuals, families, and families with children or without children. Yep, and it was so interesting to hear the different stories behind the people. We met college students who were working part-time who could not afford rent, so they were living in a tent. And there were older people that through no fault of their own had lost their jobs or their rent had gone up and they found themselves out in the street.
Would the public be surprised to learn the stories behind the people who are experiencing homelessness?
Yes. I definitely believe that with any case, whether it's homeless people, whether is LGBTQ people, whether it's Muslims, whether it's, you know, whatever group, if you meet them you get to know that they're human beings. They do a lot of the same things that you do. They have a lot of the same situations you have. They're not this strange monster. They're not all drug addicts. They're definitely not all marijuana users that just wanted to move to Colorado to have free marijuana or something.
There are a lot of misconceptions.
One lady I met was already in her 60s and she had a job at one of these little convenience stores and she had her little apartment. Within three or four months the convenience store where she worked was purchased by a bigger chain that cut her hours. So now she was only part-time and the rent at her apartment went up. Suddenly she could not afford her rent. So, she's out on the street and she finds out that one rule of the new company is that they cannot hire homeless people, so she lost her job as well through no fault of her own. She had done nothing wrong. There was no reason for her to be fired except for this rule that she couldn't be homeless. Yeah, so she came to one of our distributions and she told me about her story.
Afterwards I walked with her to Springs Rescue Mission and witnessed that they have to sit in line, sometimes for a couple hours, to see if they're going to be able to come into the shelter at night. I found out that the workers at the shelter have this list of different chores that have to be done and until they get somebody to sign up for every single one of the chores, nobody's let in. So, they finally get enough people to sign up for the different chores and I start noticing these little piles being left on the side of the building because people are not allowed to bring food in. The little they have they have to leave outside; more than likely it will not be there the next morning.
So, she goes in and they check her bags.
I imagine she was terrified.
She was because she didn't know at first whether she was even going to be able to get in. So, probably 10 minutes later, she calls me because I had given her my phone number. She calls me to tell me that after she got inside they asked for her age and since she was over 55 or something she couldn't take one of the upper bunks. And those were the only ones that were available, so she was being kicked out.
When did this happen?
I would say maybe a year and a half ago.
Have things improved since then?
I don't think so because later I took a man to the shelter, and I wanted to make sure he got in, so I was there in line standing out in the cold because everybody has to be interviewed. They have to check their bags and they have to check everything before they go in. And there’s this huge room - there's absolutely no privacy. I found out later there aren't even any bathroom facilities inside the building, so they have to go outside in the parking lot and use one of those public bathroom stalls.
So, I don't think it's gotten any better.
There was another time when we went to deliver snacks and socks and things to the folks at the Springs Rescue Mission. We were in their parking lot and the staff came out and told us we should not be helping any of “these people” and we definitely should not bring our kids to do this because all of those people were sex abusers and sex predators. They asked us to leave, so we had to go across the street on the curb to deliver things to folks who were in need.
I've heard you say “we” several times. Who is “we?”
Oh, I say “we” because I can't do this all by myself. There's a group of us. We started over two years ago. We're called “Spreading Smiles and Sandwiches.” That's one group I help and we serve at Dorchester Park on the second Sunday of the month.
There's a group of us responsible for the food. We try to have all they can eat right there. We also put together a sack lunch that typically has a sandwich and snacks and fruits. The community donates all of this. Either people from our group donate things or they have friends who donate things. We also always have water bottles for them. And then the part that I'm responsible for are donated articles of clothing, shoes, and bags. Sometimes we're lucky and we have a couple of sleeping bags. Sometimes we have a couple of tarps that we can give away. We also have toiletries - little shampoos, a toothbrush and toothpaste, and deodorant. Often we also try to have bandages and pens and little note pads, or the jumbo word search kind of thing, just something so they can feel more human. I encourage people to come to meet them, so they can see that they're people who are struggling.
What is a typical day like for you when you have your advocate hat on?
Well, that has changed dramatically since my initial work with Blackbird Outreach. We used to go out on trails with supplies. In the winter we would bring out the little propane gas tanks and just check in on people. When I first started with Blackbird, I was really big on the survey thing. I truly believed that it would make a change for people. Months afterwards, I was very disheartened. Not a single person I surveyed was ever reached for help. And I don't know if it was that the information was not properly uploaded to the database, or if the needs these folks had were beyond what any of the groups could do. I don't know, but I started feeling guilty that I had given people hope that something would come of their taking the time to fill out the survey when nothing did.
Yeah, so I went from doing surveys and providing some items, to moving people when there was going to be one of those police raids. I helped them clean up their sites. We would bring large trash bags. We brought water bottles. One of the people in our group also had basic first aid training. So, we had bandages and gauze and things like that in case we found somebody who needed that type of help. We provided vehicles to help move their things. We got to the point where the city was restricting where we could go more and more and more. And now people are just hiding. I don't know where they are. I have no way of reaching them to find out how to help them. So then our focus became just the serving.
But within the last couple months the city fenced out the gazebos. It was a very gradual thing. They locked up the bathroom facilities first. Then they got rid of the benches and the tables that were under the gazebos. They were constantly harassing people that were staying there and then their latest step was to fence the gazebos out. And then we were told that it was forbidden for us–it was illegal-to serve at the park.
We're willing to pay the fine because we will not stop helping them.
Do you need special skills to advocate for the homeless, many of whom have a mental illness or trauma?
I am sure that people who have training could do a better job, but I believe that with a heart and with compassion you can work with people. It's not true that all of them have some kind of mental illness any more than all of us are stressed out because we can't pay rent and we can we can’t work enough hours to make enough money to pay for all the things that we need. I mean we're all stressed out.
Sometimes I feel like people who have had the training become hardened. They may think of long-term solutions where people can eat long term, but people need to eat every day. People need to be able to sleep every day. People need to be able to go to the bathroom every day. People need to have water every day. Long-term solutions don't address that.
What is the most challenging aspect of being homeless in Colorado Springs?
I will say this like a third party because I'm not living it, but one thing I have heard is “being made to feel invisible.” We have a mayor who I believe truly thinks it is in the best interest of the city to mistreat homeless people to the point where they will disappear. He doesn't want to see them. He doesn't want to have to deal with them.
What is our city government’s responsibility towards those impacted by homelessness, both in terms of the homeless and the public?
The most important thing the city needs to do is help with housing, whether it is that they convince some developers to do affordable housing or just allow for rezoning of some area so we could have some tiny homes or places where people could safely camp, where we could reach them with counselors. We could reach them with even basic things like having a laundromat area, having a place where they could cook, having a place where they could go to the bathroom and maybe take showers. You know, have one central structure surrounded by little tents or little homes that they could build, because once they have a place that is stable where they can get mail, they can apply for jobs. They can get IDs. So often all their documentation is stolen from them. There are a lot of things they cannot do without some form of ID. So, there are all these services they need and we keep chasing them away from the places where they can get those services.
Are there things the city of Colorado Springs is doing well to reduce homelessness?
I don't want to say that there isn't a single thing they are doing right, but it is very hard for me, to think of it. Instead, their attitude is that there are already organizations doing things so we should just let them do them. I know there's Continuum of Care and there are some organizations that are very good organizations and they are doing good, but because there is a limited bucket of money all the organizations are fighting each other to be the one that gets something. One thing that bothers me is that the city gave Springs Rescue Mission five hundred thousand dollars to build some kind of housing-60 apartments. We have over 1,200 people out on the street! I'm not an economist, but there has got to be some better way that I could have used five hundred thousand dollars that would have reached more people than 60.
Many people in our community want to help those experiencing homelessness, but don't know where to begin. What would you suggest?
Donate to an organization that directly serves homeless folks and not like ARC or Goodwill. Another thing I like to do is I take my granddaughter with me when we do our servings so she is not afraid of homeless people. She now lets me know, when we are in an intersection, “Oh, grandmother, there’s somebody that we need to help.” So, I try to carry water bottles. I try to carry a snack that I can give to somebody that's on the corner. Also, reach out to some organization that donates. I was very fortunate two years ago: I saw some advertisement for a sock company that said that for every pair they sell, they donate a pair. So I wrote to them and they wrote me back. For two years in a row they have donated a thousand pairs of socks that we distribute in Colorado Springs.
Speaking of your granddaughter, how would you talk to a child about homelessness?
Well, I would let them know there are things that can happen to anybody–you know, suddenly they lose everything and they're out on the street.
What does feeling a sense of security mean to you? And how would you describe it for yourself?
To me feeling a sense of security is knowing I have a safe place to sleep, knowing I have a safe place to keep my belongings, and knowing that people care about me. That's what I try to do with the people I've come to know more recently, like at Dorchester Park. I know I can't house them all, but I can let them know they're not invisible.
You've probably had plenty of time to think about this: If you suddenly found yourself homeless, what is the first thing you would do?
I would call 2-1-1 because I have been told that that is the number I could call if I was in a desperate situation. I think more people need to know about 2-1-1 for two reasons: The first one is if they truly can help, that's a great resource - to have a single place where you can address whatever your situation is. The second one is if they really cannot help then we need to stop spreading the lie.
What is 2-1-1?
My understanding is it is the United Way phone connection. You tell them what you're probably is and because they have all the organizations that work with United Way, they can help you if you need formula for your baby or help with rent one month, or help with paying your utilities.
Is there a rewarding or upsetting moment you've had while working with the homeless that stands out in your mind?
I had been working with Raven. One month I was the one that fronted the money for the newspaper and then they paid me back.
The Springs Echo is Raven’s brainchild, correct?
What was Raven’s full name?
You know, that was her street name. I think most people know her as Raven.
How did you meet her?
She was one of the people at the meeting here when I started working with Blackbird Outreach. She was very active even though she herself was homeless. She was active in helping people move so they wouldn't get tickets. I remember her. She had this pair of black boots and a long coat. She just looked impressive, but she was very frail.
On the day that we found out that she had been killed, it was just heartbreaking because she was another one of those people that nobody cared about. We never found out who killed her. And it just spread the vicious cloud of, you know, “all homeless people are drug addicts” and so “she overdosed” and we know that's not what happened.
How has your advocacy work with the homeless changed you, if at all?
It has made me be more loud about it. Before, I was just a little soldier. Blackbird Outreach would tell me to do this and I would go do it. Now I'm talking to more people about it. I will continue to fight what the city is doing because after I met that 60-some-year-old woman, I thought, “That could be me.” So many women make less than men. Many of us work less years because we're taking care of our children and our homes. Many women now in their 60s and 70s were maybe in situations where their role was to just be taking care of the home, and then their husbands die or their husbands leave them, and they have nothing. It should terrify all of us because it's not that they were bad people. They did nothing wrong. They’re in these situations and we know that it's harder for older women to get a new job than it is for an older man.
I can't imagine being in that position and then being out on the streets for the first night and what that's like. How terrifying that must be if you don't have friends and family or a support network.
Yes, yes, yes.
So here’s a random question for you: Do you eat food that is past its expiration date if it smells and looks fine?
Yes. I do. One thing I've become a big proponent of is you're not going to throw an apple away just because it has a little bruise. I eat my bananas with a lot of little brown dots all over it. I hate to waste food.
What's the coldest you've ever been?
I guess I would say when I first came to the United States. I was an exchange student in high school and I was sent to live with a family in Iowa. I went from living in the tropics to Iowa in the winter. Yes, and I had friends who told me that if you get cold enough, then your fingers will turn purple and then black and then the fingertips will fall off. So, not only was I terribly cold, I was mortified. Yeah, I was going to go back home without fingertips.
What are some of the most common misconceptions people have about homelessness?
One is that they're all either mentally ill or drug addicts. Another one is that it happens to bad people because if you were a good person and you had worked all your life, you would not find yourself in that situation. That is just not true. It can happen to any of us.
Why do you do the work that you do? What drives you to do this?
I'm closer to the age of many of them and now that I'm aware that it can happen to any of us, I can't pretend that I don't know.
What is the best thing that has happened to you this week?
I just received some donations of baby carriers that are will be donated to a shelter on the border of New Mexico and Mexico.
Can you recommend one or two favorite social media resources you think do a good job of furthering homelessness prevention and advocacy work like yours?
I definitely want folks to know about Spreading Smiles and Sandwiches.
Is there a difference between the term “homeless” and the following terms: on the streets, vagrant, sleeping rough, living rough, migrants, knockabouts, unhoused, hobos, displaced, and bag lady? What is the most appropriate way to refer to people experiencing homelessness?
I want to start with the ones I definitely do not agree with. Anything that refers to people on the move, like they spend a couple weeks here and then they somehow find transportation and go live somewhere else. That doesn't apply to the community that we help in Colorado Springs. Some recent surveys show that between 60 and 70 percent of them are long-term residents of El Paso County, so it's that whole thing of “they're just moving along and we can just help them move along.” Yeah, that doesn't work. I know that some of them would like to use “unhoused.” I always make a point of using that as an adjective. So, for example, I said “unhoused people” or “unhoused neighbors” the same way that I say “homeless people” or “homeless neighbors.” I don't just use the adjective because there's some negative connotation with that. I want it to be clear they are people and they are our neighbors above all.
Where is the most uncomfortable place you have ever slept?
Actually, I slept in a sleeping bag outside one year to raise awareness to the youth that had been kicked out of their homes and were sleeping out on the street. It was a fundraiser.
Do you remember what month of the year that was?
I want to say they do it at the beginning of November. It wasn't the coldest and it wasn't snowing. And we had security guards walking around, so we knew for sure nothing was going to happen to us. Nobody was going to try to steal my stuff, so it was nothing compared to real life.
What are you most proud of in life so far?
That's tough because I had a previous life before my Spanish work and my activist work. I was an engineer, and I worked on GPS out of Schriever Air Force Base. I'm very, very proud of that because I know just about everything in our modern life is affected by GPS.
You worked on the development of GPS as a technology?
Yep. I was one of the software engineers that works on this place, that showed the airmen at Schriever the state of the satellite. We called it “the health of the satellite,” you know, where the battery’s charging up right. But as an activist, I feel great pride in knowing that this little 60-some-year-old feels safer with homeless people than with some conservative, supremacist kind of people.
What was life like as a young girl?
I'm the oldest of six. I grew up in Panama and both of my parents worked, my grandmother worked, and my aunts worked. So, I grew up in a society where women didn’t have all the same jobs that all the men could have, but our women worked. When I was in middle school, I was part of the Junior Red Cross. I was a volunteer and there was this huge fire that burned down a whole block of wooden houses. There was a huge call for people to donate clothes and shoes and things that the folks had lost, so we went in and helped sort clothes. So, from an early age I knew that you needed to help when somebody needed help. Yeah, and my mom housed people that didn't have another place to live. Initially, it was relatives and then it became other people. I grew up with very caring parents, a very caring mom.
Your story makes me wonder if it’s possible to teach others empathy.
Yes, by example and by being with them–with folks that need things. I also got to work in Laredo, Texas a couple of months ago in one of the shelters for the recently arrived refugees. The appreciation that you get by doing something as simple as giving somebody toilet paper and a toothbrush and toothpaste which I think we take for granted. All of us have extra at our house all the time. These folks do not know when they will get the next roll of toilet paper or when they will get toothpaste or a toothbrush. I think by seeing that appreciation in others you learn empathy.
When you're not advocating, what do you like to do? What are your interests?
I’m a Spanish teacher, so many years ago I told my students they had to practice. Over 10 years ago I started practicing with a friend from Quebec. And about seven years ago I started practicing with a different friend in France. We do a half-hour Spanish and a half-hour in French. I love my language practices. I also knit scarves for my homeless neighbors. Oh, and I love to spend time with my granddaughter.
When was the last time you felt you had a new lease on life?
Ohhhh, last August. I had a perforated appendix. I spent 10 days in the hospital. Yeah, July of last year. It took a while to feel like, “Okay, I'm going to survive this.” I thought I was a goner.
What would a box with all your hopes and dreams inside look like?
An awesome magic machine that would make clean water available to everybody for free.
Is there a lesson you've learned while advocating for the homeless?
There has to be a mixture between long-term planning and everyday assistance. Without both we won't have success.
Is there anything we haven't talked about that you'd like for readers to know?
Even if you have nothing to offer people, just spending some time with them will teach you a lot and it will help them not feel so invisible.