Depending on the day you read the news, the impact of the legalization of marijuana on Pueblo County ranges from the best economic boom Pueblo has seen in 50 years to the downfall of society.
Critics of the failure of the legalization of marijuana quickly point to Anne Stattleman, the executive director of Posada – Pueblo’s non-profit tasked with moving the homeless into homes. She has been outspoken on the point that legalization has increased the homeless population in Pueblo.
As an anecdote, the image drawn up is one where transient, weather-worn men from the outer reaches of society are flocking to Pueblo for the free weed. When they get here they consume precious resources along with consuming cannabis creating a marijuana fueled dependency on the government.
So, I wanted to know what Stattleman is really up against.
On a bleak Monday morning in May, inside the tight office space of Posada I sat down with Stattleman to begin to piece together what is driving the increase of Pueblo’s homelessness.
On any given day around 10 families can come through Posada’s doors needing food, shelter or basic-needs assistance, she told me. And eight of them are likely from out of state looking to relocate to Pueblo because they have been told Pueblo is affordable.
“It’s not enough to serve the people coming through your door. You’ve got to look at why they’re coming through the door.” -Anne Stattleman, executive director of Posada
She relates what she often sees pulling into the Posada parking lot to a modern-day “Grapes of Wrath” scene: Beaten old cars filled with so many belongings that it’s impossible to see out of the back window and plastic containers bungie-tied to the roof. It’s a wonder they even made it to town all in one piece.
The increase of out-of-staters that Posada sees is directly linked to Amendment 64, the legalization of marijuana in Colorado, Stattleman has been explaining over the past year.
“We saw an increase (of people relocating from out of state) Jan. 2, 2014, and I don’t think any of us really believed it at that point. We just thought it was an interesting spike,” Stattleman said. “The connection is that Pueblo’s hook is that it is an affordable community. And so folks are coming to Colorado for pot and they’re coming to Pueblo because it’s more affordable to live here than some other locations.”
While Posada’s mission is to help the people that come through its door to become self-sufficient and live independently, Stattleman often finds that her job requires more than that.
“It’s not enough to serve the people coming through your door. You’ve got to look at why they’re coming through the door,” she said. “That’s all we’re doing.”
That has meant speaking with city and county officials about the problem and trying to get them to understand the problem and seek some kind of solution.
During a May 11 city council work session, Stattleman told city council, as of April 30, Posada has seen 306 families that have relocated to Pueblo because of marijuana. That translates to around 10 percent of the cases they handle.
Right after the passage of Amendment 64, Stattleman said a family came to Posada from Nebraska where they left their jobs to pursue a life where they thought the grass would be greener. They planned on finding jobs in the retail marijuana industry, but housing fell through and they needed a place to go.
Stattleman told me it’s not really clear at first whether people are relocating to Pueblo strictly for marijuana.
“They generally don’t tell us it’s due to marijuana. But we do know they’ve moved here from out of state, and then it’s generally in longer conversations with case managers or down the road after we’ve housed them for a while that we find out exactly why they came here,” Stattleman said.
The workload at Posada has changed, but the funding has not – which has led Stattleman to city council and county commissioners to ask for a solution because nobody planned for what Stattleman calls the “unintended consequences.”
“People who use pot are already here and the people who use it irresponsibly are already here and those are generally the ones who cost the community the most money,” Stattleman said. “But I think something has to be done city and county wide.”
Stattleman said she would be in favor of setting some money aside for programs such as Posada to help alleviate the homelessness that she has seen as a result of legalization.
“But I almost think there should have been an industry tax for social concerns,” she said.
During the May 11 work session, Councilman Dennis Flores asked Stattleman if money was the only solution to the problem.
She told me that it’s not, “but the people who are going to have to look at solutions aren’t willing to do that.”
Other parts of the state are experiencing increases similar to Posada.
In December, the Associated Press reported an informal survey done by Denver’s Salvation Army Crossroads Shelter found nearly 30 percent on the 500 out-of-towners relocated to Denver between July and September did so for marijuana.
In Denver, the AP said, the numbers could also be attributed to Colorado’s economy, which as a whole is thriving leaving affordable housing harder to find.
But Stattleman said it’s the exact opposite problem in Pueblo. Pueblo has adopted affordability as a selling point attracting more people, many who still can’t afford to live here. Stattleman pointed to the Pueblo Chieftain as a driver on the affordability messaging at the council’s work session. However, she has worked with the paper and other community leaders on addressing that specific issue.
“Last year, Posada met with the Pueblo Chieftain and the leadership at PEDCO to speak about what was happening in our community,” Stattleman said in an email to council members after the May 11 work session. “We provided an in depth presentation and a tour of some of Pueblo’s homeless camps and the back alley view to show them how many people were living in unfit conditions. Jane Rawlings (assistant publisher at the Chieftain) and Rod Slyhoff (at the Pueblo Greater Chamber of Commerce) worked with us on identifying pop-up ads from the Chieftain’s site and doing some other work about Pueblo messaging.”
In the email Stattleman said she has talked with Pueblo County Commissioner Terry Hart and Chris Markuson, director of Pueblo County economic development, about messaging too.
To Stattleman, the messaging of affordability becomes important because she sees many relocating that already receive some kind of assistance, such as disability, housing vouchers or family support and aren’t working in the community.
“I’m not saying there aren’t good things about pot in this community – I haven’t seen them – but I’m sure they’re out there,” Stattleman said. “What I am saying is if we’re bringing people into our community that can’t afford to live in our community, we need additional services, and how are we going to get that?”
Stattleman’s stance comes off as anti-marijuana, but she told me it’s really about those unintended consequences she keeps referring back to. If recreational marijuana is causing an uptick in homelessness, it should be addressed, she said. But Stattleman doesn’t believe it is up to Posada to change the city’s branding and implement a solution on top of fulfilling the non-profit’s mission of providing assistance to the increasing amount of homeless in Pueblo.
“I don’t really have a dog in the fight,” she told me before I left.