Denver Set Out to End Homelessness Ten Years Ago -- Is the Finish Line in Sight?

Michael George spent nearly a third of his life living on Denver's streets.

He was born in Colorado, but his dad was a cook in the Air Force, and when George was four years old, the family moved from Lowry to Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama. George lived there until he finished high school -- inspiring what would later be his street nickname, "Alabama" -- and then followed in his father's footsteps, joining the Air Force. He trained in Colorado and was stationed in Texas, where he did supply work. He never had to fight during his four-year stint, but he was a casualty in another way. "When I got out of the military, people were saying, 'You know, you're kind of over-drinking.' But to me," he recalls, "I was like, 'Are you for real? Everybody takes a drink.' Nine in the morning, hey, what's wrong with that? Because that's what we did in the barracks. It was accepted, and it wasn't a big thing in that military world at that time."

See also: For the Homeless, Urban Camping Is No Picnic

In the late '80s, George moved back home with his parents in Alabama, but he saw that his mom was drinking heavily. Even if he didn't think he had a problem, he didn't want to be around that. "I just felt like if you're in a chaotic situation, leave," he says. "So, having the last few dollars I had, I figured, let's go give Colorado a whirl. But I came totally unprepared. I didn't know it at the time; I do now. I was totally just one of those hothead kids: 'I'm going to conquer the world.'"

He struggled to find a job and ended up on the streets. As his situation stagnated, his drinking increased. "When it chilled outside, it was more of a comfort," he remembers. "Comfort me, sedate me, let me get some rest the few hours I can."

He got a job, but lost it because he failed to show up for work. He found a bed at a shelter, but was arrested when a fight broke out next to his cot. "In the shelter, I fit the bill," he says. "If it looks bad, and it fits your situation...you get tagged with it."

His life became booze and little else. He started hanging out at Sonny Lawson Park, at Park Avenue West and Welton Street, where his bed was a flattened cardboard box. His main priority was keeping a bottle of Wild Irish Rose in his hand.

He didn't think of himself as homeless. At Sonny Lawson, there was a camp under every tree; the people who lived there would tour the trees like they were visiting friends' houses, drinking and partying. "I was resigned to the fact that this is my lot in life, and I'll just deal with it the best I can," George says.

In 2007, George had been living on Denver's streets for more than fifteen years when he stopped in to pick up food stamps at the now-closed Denver Human Services center on Welton and met Jerene Petersen, the program manager for a new city division called Denver's Road Home. She was chatting with veterans, because she'd heard that they didn't want to move off the streets -- and George was proof of that. He'd been homeless so long he didn't want help, didn't even know what help looked like. Peterson invited him to come tour a facility that helped homeless veterans anyway.

A few weeks later, she got a call telling her that George was asking for her at the Welton Street office. "This is going to sound cliché-ish, but it's really strange," he says now. "I had no clue that when this lady walked into my life it was going to change. I wasn't looking for that. I was really looking for my liquor."

Denver's Road Home, billed as the "ten-year plan to end homelessness," entered its tenth year this past July. As anyone in downtown Denver can see, homelessness has not ended.

But according to figures released just last week in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's 2014 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress, the total number of people experiencing homelessness in Colorado has dropped 29.5 percent since 2007. The report, which uses numbers reported by local and state agencies, found that nationally there's been a 10 percent reduction in the number of homeless overall, with a 25 percent drop in the unsheltered population since 2010. The report also found significant reductions in homeless veterans and families nationwide -- a 33 percent drop among veterans and a 15 percent decline in the number of families with children.

Although Denver is following through better than many other cities with its ten-year plan, Denver's Road Home was not designed to actually end all homelessness in this city. In fact, the "ten-year plan to end homelessness" tag was a federal creation, not a Denver invention: More than a decade ago, the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness challenged cities to create ten-year plans to end chronic homelessness, and the U.S. Conference of Mayors accepted that challenge in 2003. Denver was one of many communities that adopted the federal language in promoting its efforts to find a solution to chronic homelessness.

By 2010, 243 communities had created a ten-year plan -- but not all have carried through, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. Denver has. "When I think of places around the country who come around this issue and a plan around [the] homeless, Denver is one of the ones to take it seriously," says Steve Berg, the National Alliance's vice-president for programs and policy.

John Hickenlooper, who was elected mayor in 2003, took it very seriously. He championed the homeless issue from the start, rallying the business community and service providers and forming the Denver Homeless Planning Group, whose members included advocates for the homeless, city officials, homeless individuals and funders. "It was a mixture of all the people who were stakeholders in and around the issue of homelessness," says Tom Luehrs, who has been executive director of the St. Francis Center for 23 years, was part of the group, and now serves on the Denver Homeless Commission.

The group developed "A Blueprint for Addressing Homelessness in Denver," a report on the needs of the homeless community. The blueprint proposed creating a ten-year plan for addressing the steep increase in homelessness from 1990 to 2003 -- an increase of 7,740 individuals, or nearly 500 percent over thirteen years. The planning group soon morphed into the Denver Homeless Commission, which used the blueprint to develop a ten-year plan. The city designated the Denver Department of Human Services to manage implementation of the plan through a new program: Denver's Road Home (DRH).

The program's plan included eight broad goals for ending chronic homelessness: 1. Develop permanent and transitional housing opportunities to meet the needs of low-income individuals; 2. Make safe shelter beds and activities available for all populations both day and night; 3. Increase services for preventing homelessness; 4. Improve access to supportive services that promote long-term stability; 5. Create a homeless outreach program to better connect homeless people and service agencies; 6. Assist people who are homeless in obtaining skills and knowledge necessary to participate in the workforce; 7. Build community awareness and support for programs addressing the needs of the homeless; and 8. Reform Denver's zoning, building and development codes to facilitate an adequate supply of emergency and affordable housing.

But when DRH adopted the goal of "ending homelessness," that did not mean there would never be a person in Denver without a home. The goal was to have enough options and services so that when individuals lost their homes, the city had the capacity to address their needs and remedy the situation quickly, so that homelessness did not become a permanent state.

"Certainly when you talk about ending homelessness, you talk about ending homelessness as a way of life or ending homelessness as a chronic condition, not that it would prevent anyone from ever being homeless," explains John Parvensky, who has been president of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless for nearly three decades. "Homelessness should be brief and rare, rather than an ongoing situation."

The federal government wanted these ten-year plans to focus specifically on ending chronic homelessness -- a condition that accounts for just a part of the overall homeless population, but the most challenging part. A chronically homeless individual is defined by HUD as someone living in an emergency shelter or on the street who has a disabling condition; who has been homeless for a year or more; or who has experienced at least four episodes of homelessness in the past three years.

According to HUD, the key to ending chronic homelessness is having enough housing units for these individuals -- housing that doesn't require them to be sober or have an income and allows for consistent access to services like health care and government benefits.

A national campaign called 100,000 Homes, an initiative by the nonprofit Community Solutions that helped house 100,000 people over four years, claims that housing an individual immediately with supportive services can keep more than 80 percent of homeless individuals off the streets.

Immediate housing also reduces homeless individuals' financial impact on the city. From a sample of formerly homeless people -- 128 individuals receiving treatment and housing at the Mental Health Center of Denver -- DRH estimates that each person housed saved the city about $38,106 annually, for a total of $4.8 million in a year. When they were housed, their use of emergency services decreased, reducing jail time, hospital stays, psychiatric stays and detox, according to the DRH report.

Since DRH started, officials say, the program has helped add 2,941 "housing opportunities" to the city's stock. (DRH doesn't have a breakdown of housing-unit types, such as housing with programs versus independent affordable housing; those numbers should be in the ten-year report due out next year.) And last month, the Denver Office of Economic Development announced a five-year plan to increase affordable housing in the city, which includes some housing with services for the homeless.

But even with all of DRH's work over the past decade, there's not enough housing: The St. Francis Center has 150 people waiting to get into its Cornerstone Residences supportive-housing program.

Although DRH's priority was developing housing with supportive services, it also funded programs to meet its other goals.

Through eviction-prevention assistance funded by DRH, 6,445 families and individuals were kept from becoming homeless. Nonprofits including Mercy Housing, Mental Health Center of Denver, St. Francis Center, The Gathering Place and Warren Village distributed those funds.

Another DRH-funded program, run first by the Denver Rescue Mission and now by the Salvation Army, partnered faith communities with homeless individuals and helped mentor 1,215 families and seniors out of homelessness.

DRH has also helped generate 7,984 employment and training opportunities and started both the Homeless Court (where hearings are designed specifically to help the homeless clear their records of petty crimes and pay reduced fees) and Project Homeless Connect, which brings services from around the metro area under one roof in one annual event.

One of the most successful programs has been the Denver Street Outreach Collaboration, which was created by DRH under the leadership of then-director Jamie Van Leeuwen and helped take 2,549 individuals off the street. "Outreach was one of the things that came in with Denver's Road Home, and that was a huge thing," says Luehrs, whose St. Francis Center, along with Urban Peak and the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, manages the outreach workers. "That was momentous, because for the first time, we knew who was out on the streets -- who they were and what their issues were."

Continue for more on Denver's Road Home. For Michael George, outreach was key.

When Jerene Petersen got the message that George was looking for her, she took him to Denver CARES Cherokee House, a rehabilitation center. The Denver CARES staff had seen George before; he'd been to the facility's detox center. Although Petersen hadn't noticed that George had been drinking, the staff did, and they put him in detox that day.

This time, something clicked. Maybe it was that someone had faith in him. But in the beginning, it was just the bed. "When I got there, I realized how wonderful it was to lay in a bed for the first time in all those years," George remembers. "The things I had forgotten, the basic little things -- taking a bath every day, wearing clean clothes -- just basic stuff, nothing big-time. You lose all that in your homeless plight."

During his recovery, he became friends with DRH director Van Leeuwen, who is now a senior advisor to Governor Hickenlooper. Van Leeuwen would make him laugh and laugh, George says: "I hadn't laughed in years. And [he] said to me, 'You are someone. We know it; you just need to see it.'" Conversations like that helped George not only get through recovery, but stay sober these past seven years.

"I think it was all the supportive people who came together through the thread of Denver's Road Home that helped him," says Petersen.

After more than six months in rehab, George moved into Catholic Charities' St. Joseph's Home for Veterans. A year into that program, Pat Coyle, the director of the Colorado Division of Housing, who was the DRH housing director at the time, gave him a housing voucher for his own place. George turned it down.

"I was so sure I'd go drink, I handed it right back," he says. "I was so scared to go into housing right away, because that's all I had been doing for 24 years. I knew I'd do just like my friends, and that was go get me a drink, tell my friends -- I was going to turn it into a big flophouse. I was feeling so unsure in that first year of not drinking."

The next year, he went back to Alabama for his father's funeral. At the luncheon following the service, his whole family was drinking. As George left, his sister came up to him and said she was proud of him: He hadn't touched a drop.

"Everybody was drinking over my dad...and it didn't dawn on me that I wasn't drinking," he says. "It didn't even come to mind, and that's when I knew, God, something is good here."

By that point, he was working with veterans at the Aurora Mental Health Center. He had an income and realized he was truly sober. He went to Coyle. "I said, 'Pat, maybe now.' I felt ready," he says. He was ready for a home.

Continue for more on Denver's Road Home. Most of the public's focus is on the visible homeless, the chronic homeless, the individuals given priority in the ten-year plan. But that population is just a fraction of the metro area's total homeless population.

Denver, like most cities, uses what's known as a Point-in-Time survey to quantify its homeless population. The PIT, conducted by the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative every January, relies on volunteers who go to streets, parks, shelters, service providers, hotels and other places in the seven-county metro area and survey individuals about their homeless experience. The MDHI is quick to point out that the PIT is an incomplete "snapshot" of the homeless, a one-night survey. But as imperfect as that report is, it supplies the numbers that the city and surrounding counties rely on to measure the homeless population.

In 2005, when Denver's ten-year plan began to be implemented, the PIT counted 10,268 homeless individuals in the seven-county metro area. The numbers have hovered around 10,000 ever since, reaching a high of 12,605 in 2012; in 2013, the total was 11,167. (The 2014 total was just 8,042, but because of bad weather, fewer volunteers brought in fewer surveys, skewing the numbers, according to the MDHI.) Denver County currently accounts for nearly half of the total homeless population, or 46.5 percent. Back in 2005, just 7.3 percent of the homeless population was considered chronic; this year's PIT put the percentage at 8.7 percent. That's a big drop from 2013, when 12.7 percent of the population fit the "chronic" definition.

Over the past four years, the federal government has turned its focus (and funding) from the chronic homeless to homeless veterans. In 2005, 15.3 percent of Denver's homeless population claimed past military service, compared to 13 percent in 2009. In 2013 that number dropped to 11.3 percent, according to the PIT surveys.

But in the past ten years, family homelessness -- which includes individuals in a couple, a couple with children, and single parents with children -- has grown. In 2005, 45 percent of the homeless were in families; in 2014, family homelessness accounted for 61.9 percent of those counted in the PIT survey. "We've done some good in terms of ending chronic homelessness, but the numbers of women, children, families and youth...have gone up," says Leslie Foster, president/CEO of The Gathering Place, a daytime drop-in center for women, children and transgender individuals.

Service providers blame the economic bust that hit in 2008 for the big increase in family homelessness, as well as homelessness overall. "Even if we had planned" for the recession, says Luehrs, "we probably wouldn't have planned to the magnitude that it turned out to be."

When the homeless population jumped, the need for emergency shelter beds increased. That caused tension in the Housing Commission, service providers say. Funding permanent housing when there was such an immediate need on the street made the housing-first model a tough sell. "Of course, everybody wants permanent housing, but in the meantime, as a service provider, you know people by face and by name and by story who are on the streets tonight," says Foster. "And it's really hard to say 'Let's do permanent housing and not do shelter' when you're watching people go out on the streets at night."

The recession wasn't the only challenge. In 2010, Hickenlooper resigned as mayor to run for governor; Mayor Michael Hancock was sworn in the next year. Hancock promised to keep DRH going: "The first step we took as a new administration was to make it abundantly clear that not only would Denver's Road Home continue as a vital initiative in the delivery of homeless services, but I would also move to make it a permanent fixture in our community," he said recently.

But there were problems with the program: The Homeless Commission was meeting less often, and members were still frustrated about changes in funding priorities. Meanwhile, DRH's private funding had dropped dramatically as multi-year grants expired.

"Clearly, anybody who was going to follow Jamie Van Leeuwen and the Hickenlooper team was going to have some huge shoes to fill," says Bennie Milliner, who became director of DRH in 2012. "As Hickenlooper moved to the state government...there was a dip in the fundraising and some uncertainty around the program. There was just a dip of energy -- not just funding fatigue, but human fatigue from the tremendous efforts over the first six years."

In DRH's nine-plus years, it has received $68 million in private and public funding; about 95 percent of that has been given to service providers. Since its start, DRH has funded more than twenty organizations, including the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, the Delores Project, Denver Health Medical Center, Metro Denver Homeless Initiative, Salvation Army and Urban Peak.

Private funding for DRH -- which comes from businesses, individuals and foundations -- had started at $1.7 million in the program's first fiscal year, hit its highest level with $4.6 million in 2007-2008, but came in at just $537,000 in 2013-2014. Over that time, the amount of city money going to DRH increased from $1.6 million in 2005 to $7 million last year; DRH also received a total of $3.7 million in funding from the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act between 2009 and 2012. But service providers have lost funding over the years. As a result, in 2012 The Gathering Place had to shrink the housing program it started with DRH funding from serving forty women annually to serving thirty.

"We had to cut it down because our funding got cut and we couldn't afford the person full-time," says Foster. "I don't think [Hancock's] not supportive, but it's not his priority like it was for Hickenlooper. I think he believes in it and wants to do something about homelessness but is just less focused on it."

Another challenge came in 2012, when the city passed the urban-camping ordinance, making sleeping on the streets illegal and subject to fines and jail time. Most service providers were against the proposal, arguing that there weren't enough beds for the current homeless population as it was and that people who had no place to go would be ticketed and arrested.

"Initially this appeared to us to be criminalizing homelessness," says Brad Meuli, president/CEO of Denver Rescue Mission, whose shelter has run at capacity for the past three years, both before and after the ordinance was passed. "I think it was intended more for Occupy Denver than targeted at the homeless. Nevertheless, it has had an impact on the people we serve."

The Denver Police Department only recently started issuing tickets under the ordinance, having written twelve since June. No arrests have been made, despite the fact that officers have contacted nearly 2,000 individuals since the ordinance was passed. But Foster doesn't see that as positive. "I think it's important to note that the fact that no one received a ticket isn't necessarily a sign of 'success,'" she says. "This is the wrong metric. The police have a protocol, as they should. They approach someone and ask them to move along. If the person moves along, no ticket is issued. No services are provided, and nothing has really changed in anyone's life; they have just 'moved along.' Success is seen in housing, not in the lack of tickets issued."

Foster says that her clients have been demoralized and hurt by the ordinance and the city's lack of support. "I think that the ordinance has supported an increasing sense of hopelessness and a feeling that 'the system' is more random than responsive," she explains. "There really is more shelter than before the ordinance, [but] there still is not enough shelter, and we anticipate that this winter will be a hard one.... The continued lack of shelter beds, the promises of more shelter, moving shelter and future shelter all create an atmosphere of powerlessness."

Although the city promised to create more beds when the ordinance was passed, Denver is still many beds short. This past January, the PIT counted 724 individuals -- 9 percent of the total homeless -- literally on the street. (In 2005, the number was 1,119, or 10.9 percent.) More than half of these were in Denver County, where 408 individuals reported staying on the street and another 1,346 reported staying in a shelter. That adds up to 1,754 homeless people who needed shelter -- and Denver County only has 1,200 regular shelter beds, as well as 250 overflow beds for winter emergencies. That leaves a 300-bed gap, and many of those who need shelter most are women and children, say service providers.

"We've really reduced the number of single men who are homeless, but families, children and women were backfilling like crazy," Foster says. "Shelter-wise, there are not as many beds."

The 24-hour center that the city promised more than two years ago hasn't been built -- and when it is, it won't address that need. Although it was promoted as an answer to the camping ban and referred to at different times as a "drop-in" shelter, an "emergency shelter space" and a "rest and resource" center, the latest iteration of the plan calls for housing just 30 to 45 in-crisis individuals on a referral-based system.

DRH says the center was never intended to be a traditional shelter, and that the new plan resulted from conversations with neighbors and other stakeholders. But so far, it doesn't even have a location.

And other projects that do have locations have faced opposition. Globeville residents have objected to a new shelter that would house 75 to 100 women at Holy Rosary Catholic Church, saying they see the shelter as an obstacle to the area's rejuvenation. Representatives at Catholic Charities, which will run the shelter, have continued to meet with them. The new shelter will replace one on Elati Street that's set to close on December 1.

Similarly, the Ballpark Neighborhood Association is challenging the city's approval of the Denver Rescue Mission's community center, which will go behind the current Lawrence Street Shelter. The new center will have showers, bathrooms and a kitchen for the homeless, as well as a courtyard that will serve as an outdoor day shelter. The Ballpark neighborhood has seen an influx of homeless since the urban camping ban passed; in response to business and residential concerns, this summer the city allocated $1.8 million in additional funding to increase the law enforcement presence in Ballpark and LoDo and along the 16th Street Mall.

But although Denver is far from ending homelessness, service providers say the city would be much worse off without DRH and its ten-year plan. "If anyone holds the city or Denver's Road Home at fault for not reaching the goal of ending homelessness, then I think they are being shortsighted and not being realistic," says Parvensky. "What would the streets look like today if the programs and efforts that have been supported by DRH hadn't happened? I'm sure that we'd be much worse off."

Among DRH's successes was educating the community about the issue. "The primary thing that DRH did was, then-mayor John Hickenlooper convened the initial Homeless Commission and basically brought the weight of the mayor's office to focus on the issue of homelessness in a way that had never been done before," says Parvensky. "And through that demonstration of political will, it was able to organize some resources, some community leadership and some increased coordination among service providers to better address homelessness in Denver."

"I do believe that we've become a more compassionate city toward homeless people because of Denver's Road Home and the idea that both mayors have said, 'We've got to do better than this. These are people in our community. These are our sons and daughters,'" says Luehrs.

That exposure and DRH's influence helped Luehrs build St. Francis Center's Cornerstone Residences, a fifty-unit permanent supportive-housing complex at Park Avenue West and Curtis Street. "I believe because there was a focus by the city coming from the mayor's office on affordable housing, that people opened their doors and said, 'Yeah, this is a high priority in the city now, so, yeah, we're going to make it happen.'"

Although the ten-year plan is coming to a close, DRH isn't going anywhere. Milliner says the program will be focusing on getting foundation money through multi-year grants and private fundraising, such as PJ Day, a campaign that raises money and awareness for homelessness by inviting the community to wear pajamas for a day.

The fundraising effort is part of a reinvigoration of DRH, which is getting ready to create a new plan. An executive team from the Homeless Commission will be working with DRH staffers on a draft, and the public will also have a say, according to Milliner. He promises six meetings -- five in different sections of Denver and one larger wrap-up meeting -- before the plan is finalized; those meetings should begin in January and end in May. Although he doesn't have many details about the new plan, he does say that the time span will be shorter and that there will be more of a focus on regionalism -- helping homeless-service organizations in the surrounding communities communicate and collaborate -- which service providers have requested.

"As we move forward, we see how dramatically the landscape can change. So I can clearly state...that it won't be a ten-year plan," Milliner says. "Right now I'm thinking that it will be probably about a three-year plan. As you look around the country, that's what you're really seeing in these new plan developments -- in the range of three to five years."

The plan might also align with the federal government's latest project, Opening Doors. Created in 2010, it calls for a five-year continuation of the ten-year plans to end chronic homelessness and adds the goals of ending veteran homelessness by 2015 and homelessness for families and youth by 2020.

Continue for more on Denver's Road Home. On a sunny day this fall, Michael George returns to Sonny Lawson Park. About thirty people are scattered around, playing dominoes and ping-pong, working out on the bolted-down exercise machines, listening to music. There is one camp under a tree, a setup similar to George's from when he lived in the park. He's now been sober -- and housed -- for seven years.

Since all the benches are full, George borrows a piece of cardboard from his friends Glen and Karen so that he won't dirty his dress pants when he sits under another tree. "Cardboard!" he says. "I'm at home. This was my mattress for a long time."

The '90s were not a good time for the homeless, he remembers: No one cared, and that helped keep people on the street. "I'd think, 'Why is all this crap happening to me?,' and you really get to live the unfairness. 'This isn't what I had planned. This isn't my golden dream. And all these doors are closing and I can't get out.'"

He numbed himself by drinking, numbed the pain he felt because of the assumptions people made about him. "'They can't see me because I'm in this cloud, a shroud of this homeless stigma, and they can't see who I am,'" he remembers thinking. "And the stigma kind of dresses you, and you don't like it, but you can't do nothing about it. It's an angry feeling to be stuck in an image that's not you."

Things are very different today.

George is still working at the Aurora Mental Health Center. He has an apartment, but sometimes he stays at the center, where he has a room. Where he once had no home, he now has two. He appreciates all the help that he has received along the way -- including when Hickenlooper introduced Denver's Road Home and Petersen and Van Leeuwen took a personal interest in him. "One thing Hickenlooper did was, he brought to the forefront the seriousness of the homeless situation with what was going on," George says. "Instead of 'This is people out trying to do harm or crime,' he showed that they were lost, without the means of taking care of themselves."

George attended one of Hickenlooper's State of the State speeches at the Capitol, where he was introduced to the crowd. At his job with Aurora Mental Health Center, he helps vets dealing with the transition from military life to civilian life. Many of the vets refuse to talk to him, saying he doesn't understand, until he tells them his story.

Now, as George poses for a photographer, he invites other people in the park to join him. None do, but they all watch. George's smiling face gets serious as the photographer snaps off shots. He's thinking about the contrast between his past, when he was sleeping in the park, and today, when he's having his picture taken.

George still has friends in the park, and he chats with them. He also reaches out to the people he doesn't know, telling them he used to sleep here, hoping they'll be inspired. "The city is making plans for them," he says, "but they have to want it. And they have to find it.

"People need people. And if something like this can happen to a hopeless drunk like myself, I know it will happen to others. I just know." Have a tip? Send it to editorial at westword.com.

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Kristin Pazulski has been a renaissance faire wench, a reporter, an espresso-shot slinger, an editor of a newspaper for the homeless and a grant writer. She's now a freelance writer covering Denver's restaurant scene.
Contact: Kristin Pazulski