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A year after homeless shelter opening, Colorado Springs back at square one

December 25, 2017 Updated: December 26, 2017 at 6:16 am
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Homeless camps have sprung up just west of where tent city was last year near I-25 and S. Tejon St. A man who wants to be known as "Cowboy" has a Christmas tree and comfy wing chair in front of his tent . Thursday, December 12, 2017. (Photo by Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette)

Ghostly columns of campfire smoke signal the entrance of a 17-tent encampment along the Pikes Peak Greenway Trail, complete with a Christmas tree festooned with beads, a couple stockings and a big red bow.

The illegal homeless camp is a few steps off Tejon Street along the popular running trail, visible to any passing motorist on Interstate 25.

And it's an increasingly common sight across Colorado Springs.

City officials, police, and some advocates for the homeless hoped the opening of the nearby Springs Rescue Mission's new shelter would have some effect on creekside camps, possibly paring them to the most hard-core who were determined to stay outside in any weather.

It hasn't worked out that way.

"The shelters are full," said Jeff Burkard, 53, outside one of the tents.

A year after the nonprofit's multimillion dollar shelter opened, it's routinely at capacity, and the city is back at square one in dealing with a burgeoning homeless population.

There remains a shortage of shelter beds, camps appear to be increasing across the city and people still sleep in doorways and on park benches throughout downtown Colorado Springs. Police officers say they can't legally enforce the city's ordinance banning camping on public property when shelters are full. And, as in years past, the city is trying to set up a primitive shelter for the coldest months of the year to save limbs and lives from frostbite and hypothermia.

Without the Springs Rescue Mission's new shelter and accompanying day center, the problem would be worse, homeless advocates say. Roughly 300 more people would be sleeping outside every night. Without the day center, showers, laundry services and social services for people experiencing homelessness would be gone or miles from downtown - dramatically limiting their chances of getting off the streets.

The demand for beds - especially during the summer months - has left the nonprofit's leaders scrambling to increase capacity several times since the shelter opened in November 2016.

It started with 168 year-round beds and space for a total of 257 people during cold weather and emergencies. Shelter operators have upped capacity to 320 people - the latest increase coming just last week.

"It's just a long complicated problem that the city of Colorado Springs was behind on, and homelessness is increasing at the same time," said Larry Yonker, the nonprofit's president and CEO. "We're catching up to an ever-growing problem."

Reasons for that shelter shortage are many-fold, say nonprofit leaders, homeless advocates and police who patrol the camps.

Homelessness appears on the rise in Colorado Springs - as well as across Colorado and the nation, especially in cities with higher costs of living. There are fewer motels along Nevada and Colorado avenues - eliminating longstanding havens for people experiencing homelessness as the areas gentrify and redevelop through urban renewal tax incentives.

And, most importantly, there is a severe shortage of affordable housing in Colorado Springs. That has created a bottleneck at the city's shelters, preventing those who could afford it from moving into apartments. And it's left more people on the verge of homelessness or on the streets - further straining the safety net.

"Just the scope of the issue and the complexity of the issue really, really underscores the need for more community involvement," said Andrew Phelps, the city's homelessness prevention and response coordinator. "And that includes the faith community.

"This is not a city government issue. This is a community-wide issue."

Living outside

Faced with the prospect of an indefinite stay at homeless shelters, many people say they'd rather stay outside. And those that do want to go indoors can't, because there usually aren't free beds - especially on the coldest of nights.

Homeless since February 2015, Burkard took issue with a common sentiment aired at recent community meetings in the Ivywild and Lowell neighborhoods that he and others in these camps prefer being homeless.

"Those people have no experience with the homeless," said Burkard, wiping his red, running nose while standing next to the warmth of his campfire. "They don't understand how much mental illness is out here. They don't understand how much untreated drug addiction and alcoholism is out here. They don't understand how much illiteracy is out here."

Homeless camps have sprung up just west of where tent city was last year near I-25 and S. Tejon St. . American Klopfenstein adds sticks to the campfire at her camp on a chilly day. Thursday, December 12, 2017. (Photo by Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette) 

Much of his time is spent gathering firewood - preparing for dusk and sub-freezing temperatures that can make toes go numb and cause fingers to stiffen. To survive the night, some rely on kerosene heaters. Others just huddle under five or six layers of blankets, piling two or three tarps on their tents for added insulation.

The greatest present he and his wife can offer other campers here is the coals from their fire pit, which are placed on metal pans to heat tents.

"Just because we're homeless, doesn't mean we can't be family," he said.

Sober 12 years from "you name it," Burkard said he spent two to three weeks at the Springs Rescue Mission's shelter in May, but left in a dispute with management over the towing of his vehicle. He said he won't return.

"It's overcrowded," Burkard said. "It's a low-barrier shelter. It is what it is."

Farther down the trail, America Klopfenstein, 22, said she'd get into a shelter "in a heartbeat" - if she could.

She has a restraining order against someone staying at the Springs Rescue Mission shelter. And a woman at the Salvation Army's R.J. Montgomery shelter (which also recently edged up to capacity) has a restraining order against her.

So for the time being, she's been living with her "street mom" in a tent stuffed inside another tent and filled with several blankets and topped with a couple tarps. When she gets cold at night, she walks up and down the trail to get her blood moving, sometimes stopping at Burkard's fire.

She's among hundreds of people on a housing list overseen by the county's largest nonprofits which address homelessness. But she said she was told any possibility of getting housing remains six to eight months away.

A proposed shelter at 505 S. Weber St. is her lone hope to escape the cold.

"I've been praying for them to reopen that," Klopfenstein said.

Racing to help

Whether it will is uncertain.

The city and the Salvation Army announced plans in early December to reopen the Weber Street shelter through mid-April as an emergency warming shelter capable of accommodating 150 people on sleeping mats whenever the overnight temperature reaches 38 degrees or colder.

A previous shelter at that location faced resistance from the surrounding community, with many neighbors deriding it as a crime-ridden and unsanitary nuisance. A hearing before the Downtown Review Board for a permit to operate the shelter is scheduled for Jan. 3.

Another organization, the Coalition for Compassion and Action, tried a different tactic, holding meetings in recent months to gauge interest among Colorado Springs churches for taking in people living on the streets on nights when it's 20 degrees or colder and snowing. The initiative has sputtered to a halt, however, amid a lack of interest, said Trig Bundgaard, who helps lead the organization.

"It was just crickets," Bundgaard said. "The big voices are still saying that it's not an issue."

Bundgaard warned last year that the new shelter wouldn't be a panacea. His organization has resorted to handing out tents, tarps, emergency blankets, propane tanks and sleeping bags. A nonprofit he also helps run, Blackbird Outreach, has spent $6,200 since Thanksgiving handing out survival gear to campers, often along Fountain Creek.

He estimates the true number of people living outside is anywhere from 900 to 1,300 - two or three times the 457 people found living outside during the annual Point in Time homeless survey last winter.

Affordable housing needed

City, county and local nonprofit leaders agree: Nothing will improve much without more affordable housing.

While multiple projects are planned specifically for people currently experiencing homelessness, each project is at least a year from being complete. And the county's already immense affordable housing needs are only growing more dire - for impoverished residents and the middle class, as well. In 2014, a study commissioned by Colorado Springs and El Paso County leaders found tens of thousands of households paying more than one-third of their income on housing, and people earning between $46,000 and $67,000 a year were among the most cost-burdened and in need.

Homeless camps have sprung up just west of where tent city was last year near I-25 and S. Tejon St. Thursday, December 12, 2017. (Photo by Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette) 

The situation has worsened since then, local economists and government officials say, as more Denver metro residents turn south to escape that area's white-hot housing market, pushing prices up in Colorado Springs. That means more people are being pushed into homelessness, and fewer people living on the streets can escape it, many homeless advocates say.

Meanwhile, nonprofit leaders say they're doing all they can to stem the rising tide of homelessness.

Several initiatives are underway - including increased utilization of low-income tax credits to create more affordable housing. More so-called "rapid rehousing" money is being used to quickly get people off the streets. And nonprofits have worked more closely with the local apartment association to ensure their clients can find places to use federal housing vouchers.

Importantly, the Pikes Peak Continuum of Care - a coalition of nonprofits that address homelessness - created a coordinated entry system designed to pair homeless people with a unit, or provide rental assistance based on their level of need.

So far, it's helped scores of people get into housing. But hundreds of people are still waiting, because too few affordable units exist.

"The cities that have really addressed the homeless issue and had success have both - they have a robust and healthy shelter system, and they have a pathway to affordable housing," said Beth Roalstad, who leads the local Continuum of Care. "So we as a community really need to focus on both, and I think we are.

"It's just slow. And it's not as quick as we would like."

Camps to continue

In the meantime, homeless advocates say the situation is turning increasingly deadly.

Last week, dozens of people gathered to remember about 30 people who died in 2017 while homeless, or after having spent years living outside. Some possibly died of exposure to the cold, but more died in their 40s and 50s of substance abuse, chronic illness and a lack of medical care from having spent years living outside.

Colorado Springs police say they're unwilling to roust homeless campers from their tents until the situation improves.

The Justice Department said in 2015 that laws criminalizing homelessness are unconstitutional, limiting officers from ticketing people for camping on public property when no shelter beds exist (city parks are exempt from that practice, Colorado Springs police say).

As a result, police say they see no need in continuing a cat-and-mouse routine of displacing homeless camps. Officers have written 27 tickets this year for camping on public property, but there won't be more citations as long as there's no beds available, said Sgt. Curt Hasling, who helps oversee the Police Department's four-officer Homeless Outreach Team.

"Our position is, if we tell them they have to move, where do they move to?" Hasling said. "I can't run them out of the city, obviously. It's a Catch-22."

It's different outside city limits, where El Paso County commissioners recently tightened a camping ban to include vehicles parked on county streets. No tickets have been written in at least seven months, though sheriff's deputies have continued overseeing the tear-down of camps, after posting 48-hour notices warning of citations, said Lt. Bill Huffor, who oversees the El Paso County Sheriff's Office's support services section.

The most recent cleanup was last week, near 31st Street and U.S. 24, along Fountain Creek.

"When we get a complaint, we respond," Huffor said.

He called the matter of where people go in those instances "the million dollar question." But he said most "have connections to the community, and whether or not they choose to utilize them is up to them."

"The larger question of where do these folks go, is a community problem to solve, that's for sure," he said.

For Hasling, it's a constant "balancing act."

"It's a mess - this is hard stuff to navigate through," Hasling said. "Because you want to protect the rights of the homeless folks. And you also want to be mindful of the other folks who are concerned and citizens and taxpayers.

"I always ask the question: What can we as a community do? What ideas to people have? What resources can we tap into that haven't been tapped into yet, to start to address this on a bigger scale?"

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