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Uncharitable Contributions

Homeless people say fees for background checks are a get-rich-quick scheme for social service agencies.

Homeless people need good credit, too--that is, if they want some local agencies to help them get off the streets.

Members of Humanity for Homeless, a homeless advocacy group, are angry about a policy that requires homeless individuals to pay $15 when they apply for transitional housing through Catholic Charities. The fee goes toward a background check of the applicant's credit history and criminal record.

Transitional housing is for people who are just coming off the streets and need a temporary place to stay until they can get back on their feet; the time limit for living in a transitional unit is generally two years. As residents maintain steady employment and save money, they can move on to subsidized housing or low-income housing. Denver needs 2,224 beds for families in transition but has only 1,761, says John Parvinsky, president of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. The city also needs 1,045 transitional beds for individuals, while only 463 exist. Catholic Charities has 55 apartments in Denver--40 at the former Lowry Air Force Base and the rest spread through the metro area. People who don't make it into the transitional apartments are forced into shelters or motels that accept vouchers.

Jan Bach, community organizer for Humanity for Homeless, says Catholic Charity's $15 fee is designed to weed out applicants. "They're creaming the crop," she says. But "the crop can't be expected to have good credit and absolutely no run-ins with John Q. Law."

Catholic Charities isn't alone in its policy. Most agencies that provide transitional or subsidized housing charge fees for background checks, as do the majority of private landlords who offer subsidized housing to the homeless or people with extremely low incomes.

The background-check fees can gouge applicants with limited or no financial means. As an example, Bach points to one of her friends, Jane, who asks that her last name not appear in Westword. Jane had $280 to search for a new place. After a month of paying credit-check fees, the woman was left with $25 and still had no place to live.

"If you're paying $15 left and right," adds Leticia Tanguma, a member of Humanity for Homeless, "it adds up quickly, and you don't have enough money for groceries. We're not humans to them, we're heathens."

Bach has set her sights on Catholic Charities because of its prominence--it's one of the largest private, nonprofit social service agencies in Colorado. In addition to transitional housing, it provides shelters, employment services, grants for food and clothing and many other services for hundreds of thousands of Coloradans.

Catholic Charities' housing services are supported through part of a $3 million HUD grant that began in 1996 and runs through this year; another three-year grant begins when this one runs out. The agency's share of the grant has been $715,000 over three years.

Mary Boland, vice president of Catholic Charities, says the $15 is necessary to offset the more than $20 the agency pays to run each background check. She insists the checks aren't meant to screen applicants but rather to provide "information that is turned into a case plan, information that is helpful in understanding what is keeping this family from moving on." Boland says Catholic Charities will accept background checks from other agencies if they're not too old. She adds that her agency turns down few people who make it through the application process, and those who are denied housing can either get a refund or receive a copy of their reports.

The agency doesn't pay for the credit checks itself, out of its share of the HUD grant, Boland says, because "people need to have some stake in this. If they can't pay $15, they can't pay a portion of their rent."

Jess Gonzales, a counselor at the St. Francis Center shelter at the corner of 23rd and Champa, considers that rationale a "sanctimonious value judgment applied to the poor and oppressed. If you don't bow, genuflect and kiss their butts, you won't get no apartment."

But background checks are becoming more common, says John Clardy, manager of the Denver Rescue Mission shelter--and, he says, they're necessary. "I know that sometimes people move into, let's say, a fairly cheap apartment in Capitol Hill," he says. "They may pay $100 deposit and first month's rent; then they stop paying and trash the place," he says.

Critics say the reports are little more than pieces of paper that don't provide information about the particulars of past credit or criminal problems. "The point is, you should be able to get back on your feet," says Melinda Brown, who tried unsuccessfully to get a unit through Catholic Charities.

Mabel Hall, a counselor with the Gateway Women's Shelter, describes a landscape where people sometimes wait six months or a year for housing. She says background checks increase the likelihood that the homeless, especially homeless women, will be turned away. That can have dangerous consequences. "A lot of people go back to their batterer because they can't find a place," she says.

Still, she views the check as a necessary evil. "If you don't check people, they can destroy your home, and you don't have it for other people."

Gonzales says it is common for private landlords to charge $25 or $35 application fees, which are not refunded. "It's bogus, it's wrong, it takes advantage of the homeless," Gonzales says.

"If you're not gonna give me the apartment, don't charge me," says Charles Goss, a street vendor who says he's gone through more than $150 in the last few months looking for places to stay. Even though he works, he struggles to come up with the money.

Goss, who is currently homeless, doubts background checks cost as much as poor people pay for them. "If a cop can run a check in his car in five minutes, how can they charge me?"

Catholic Charities eventually waived the fee for Jane's background check and helped her find a spacious three-bedroom apartment that costs her just under $200 a month. But, says Bach, Jane "would have never gotten that place" without Humanity for Homeless advocating on her behalf. "The people who are experts need to be the ones setting policy and procedure on how these rules apply," she says.

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