Colorado SpringsHomelessnessNews

Colorado Springs pitches plan to ease homelessness

Author: Jakob Rodgers, The Gazette - October 9, 2018 - Updated: October 29, 2018

Under a bridge in downtown Colorado Springs, a person goes through belongings in a shopping cart on Oct. 8. (Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette)

jerilee bennett, the gazette

Colorado Springs officials are pitching an eight-point plan aiming to expand homeless shelters, create a fund to help homeless military veterans and reduce illegal homeless camps.

The plan focuses on adults without children as the homeless population grows and concerns increase about illegal camping. Hundreds more people live outside than can be accommodated in shelters, and record-setting rents have cost people their apartments and left others unable to get off the streets.

City officials have voiced most of the plan’s initiatives in City Council and community meetings. But the plan consolidates those ideas and imposes a deadline on their completion: Dec. 31, 2019.

The city would help pay to add 370 “low-barrier” shelter beds, where admission is based on behavior, not sobriety.

That marks a seismic shift for the Salvation Army, which soon will drop its requirement for its shelter guests to be sober. By the end of the year, hundreds of beds at its Sierra Madre Street shelter will become “low-barrier,” basing admission instead on behavior, city officials say.

And more beds are expected to be added to the Springs Rescue Mission’s campus off West Las Vegas Street.

Other initiatives would:

  • Implement a “homeless outreach court” at the city courthouse, likely offering alternative punishments — rather than fines or jail time — for crimes such as camping on public property;
  • Seek donations for a risk mitigation fund to help house homeless veterans;
  • Develop a comprehensive plan to create more affordable housing;
  • Hire three more Neighborhood Services officers to clean up illegal homeless camps;
  • And create HelpCOS Ambassador Teams to do homeless outreach and help tourists downtown and in Old Colorado City.

The plan also calls for the city to help fund a nonprofit-led program that would hire homeless people. Similar programs have been established across the country, including in Denver and Albuquerque.

It would expand the HelpCOS campaign, created in May by the city of Colorado Springs and Pikes Peak Area United Way to encourage people to give money to nonprofits rather than panhandlers.

City officials now envision as a central hub to address issues related to homelessness and to help steer residents to volunteer opportunities. Money donated to the website now will go to pay for shelter beds.

Mayor John Suthers said the plan will ensure that fewer people go without shelter.

“You’ve never heard me say at any point we’re going to eliminate homelessness, because we’re not,” Suthers said. “But I think we owe it to our citizens, whether they’re homeless or they’re not, to do the best we can” to improve the situation.

The mayor said the plan is expected to allow for a stronger crackdown on illegal homeless camps.

Police can’t ticket people camping on public property if no shelter beds are available, as doing so could violate campers’ constitutional rights. The only exceptions are in city parks and beside waterways, where police ticket campers.

“I’m looking for things we can do within the law to improve not only the situation for the homeless, but the community at large,” Suthers said. “And one of the things I want to accomplish is having enough shelter beds to aggressively enforce camping bans, because that’s one of the things the public very much wants us to do.”

The city plans to hold several meetings to get public comment on the plan over the next several months.

“This is really going to take the entire community coming together,” said Andrew Phelps, the city’s homelessness prevention and response coordinator.

The plan’s cost remains unclear.

Adding shelter beds is expected to cost about $2 million over the next year, mostly for construction. And hiring camp cleaners could cost an additional $171,000. No cost estimates exist for the rest of the plan.

In most cases, the city plans to rely on federal grants and donations.

“This is not a public endeavor. This is a public-private partnership,” the mayor said. “And I think it’s always going to be that way. I think it’s that way in a lot of communities.”

Several nonprofit leaders welcomed the initiative, calling it a productive and needed step to address homelessness.

Many of the city proposals were in a 10-point list of recommendations issued last month by the Continuum of Care, a coalition of nonprofits and agencies that work to help people out of homelessness. Phelps, who led the city’s effort, sits on the coalition’s board of directors.

But left off the city’s list was a recommendation to allocate a “reasonable” amount of the city’s federal grant money to expand legal aid and training on fair housing practices. Also, the coalition said, more outreach programs are needed that don’t involve police.

Other major initiatives also remain unresolved, such as providing a kitchen, dining room and welcome center at the Springs Rescue Mission. The project isn’t in the plan, but Phelps said city leaders strongly support it.

Still, Continuum of Care Chairwoman Beth Roalstad praised the plan.

“We need to be a little bit pragmatic that we may ask for more than the city can deliver year to year,” Roalstad said. “And we’re going to continue to advocate for those other items. I think it’s a real positive step forward.”

The city’s last major homeless initiative was launched five years ago with a $5 million bid by former Mayor Steve Bach. Relying almost entirely on repurposed federal grants, it aimed to add shelter beds, a homeless day center, more outreach, greater affordable housing and to reorganize the Continuum of Care.

Most of those goals have been met, with the Springs Rescue Mission opening shelters for about 300 people a night plus a day center.

Aimee Cox, who developed Bach’s plan as the city’s former community development manager, called the new proposals more “tactical,” with specific goals rather than sweeping aspirations.

She advocated for even more outreach, and she questioned how the city will pay for everything.

“There’s some good stuff in here, but I’m not clear on what the city is and is not committed to funding, and at what level,” Cox said. “The city will need a lot of partners in the community.”

The plan’s first test comes Tuesday, when the City Council is expected to vote on whether to allocate $500,000 in general fund money to help create those shelter beds.

The city has allocated $1 million in federal Community Development Block Grants for the beds, said Steve Posey, the city’s Housing and Urban Development program administrator. The El Paso County Housing Authority is expected to contribute $150,000, and Nor’wood Development Group likely will pitch in an additional $100,000, Posey said. That leaves about $165,000 to be raised.

The council is expected to decide on the $171,000 for camp cleanup workers when it votes on the 2019 budget.

Jakob Rodgers, The Gazette

Jakob Rodgers, The Gazette