October 7, 2011
In Colorado Springs, one in five children live in poverty. Last year, the homeless population grew by 56 percent — not among chronically homeless tent campers, but families with nowhere to go.
There are disparate problems that paint a grim picture for those struggling to make ends meet, and experts say they can be traced to one main culprit: a lack of affordable housing.
“We absolutely do need more affordable housing. That’s been a deficit for years,” said Robert Holmes, executive director of homeless advocacy group Homeward Pikes Peak.
The 2010 Quality of Life Indicators report released Friday says 12.9 percent of local families live in poverty, defined as earning less than $22,350 a year for a family of four. That’s up from 9.26 percent a decade ago.
Why is it persistent:
While the economy is a factor, the report points to increasing housing costs as the problem. Rents have gone up and apartment vacancies have gone down as Fort Carson grows and deployed soldiers return. Almost half of renters here pay more than 30 percent of their income for housing.
And there is little help available.
The Housing Authority of the City of Colorado Springs has a waiting list of 7,500 people for public or subsidized housing, said executive director Gene Montoya. Cuts in federal funding mean the Housing Authority isn’t building low-cost units — nor are private developers — and officials struggle to maintain existing rentals.
When they opened the waiting list for a week this summer, 3,800 people applied.
“It’s pretty difficult right now to provide additional housing,” Montoya said. “It just doesn’t make sense to tell people, ‘We’ll probably be able to help you in five years.’ It’s just a false sense of hope.”
With families paying so much for housing, an illness or job loss can put them on the streets.
The report says there were nearly 1,200 homeless people in the community last year, just over half of them in temporary shelters. And the number of people not being sheltered rose by 56 percent from 2009. Holmes believes many are first-time homeless, living in cars or the sofas of friends or family.
“The chronically homeless, the numbers are lower than they’ve ever been, because we just had the big push a year or two years ago to get them out of the creek beds and get them into programs,” he said.
After the city banned camping along the creeks, officials launched a program to transition homeless people to permanent housing, putting them up in the Aztec Motel. But that program is in jeopardy. Holmes said city officials have told him they will not be contributing money in 2012 and he is scaling back the number of rooms.
“We need to have some cooperation from the city and the city seems to be going in the opposite direction at this point, in terms of funding,” he said.
Valorie Jordan, manager of the Housing Development Division for Colorado Springs, said grant money for such programs is down across the board.
To cope with the rising poverty rates, the Quality of Life Indicators report says the community must focus on bringing more jobs to the area.
“Until there are enough jobs available that provide a true living wage, poverty will continue to rise,” it says.
For homelessness, the report urges “increased community partnerships and collaborations” to create affordable housing.
“Ensure that eligible people know about all the affordable home ownership opportunities and affordable rental opportunities, as well as rental and mortgage assistance in the Colorado Springs area. Encourage more apartment owners to offer some of their rentals at affordable prices.”
Colorado Springs Mayor Steve Bach said he'd like to uncover more information about the community's homeless.
"It’d be helpful to know ... of that increase, how much is it from people coming through Colorado Springs versus people losing their homes here," he said. "Ether way, it’s a great concern, but it just would be interesting to understand the dynamic.
"It’s clearly something that we need to deal with as a community," Bach added. "We’re going to need the entire community to come together to find solutions. Our city government simply is not going to have the resources financially to handle everything.
"We need to be a catalyst. We need to be at the table in terms of finding solutions, but it’s going to take the community. I’m talking about organizations of all types, the faith-based community."