Updated: March 4, 2010 at 12:00 am
The front desk, the spacious but unadorned lobby, the potted plants and the racks of brochures for Pikes Peak area tourist attractions telegraph the message that this is your typical budget motel.
The signs announcing Bible studies, the back room with racks of children’s clothing and the cluster of weathered, backpack-toting men talking about day labor opportunities hint that this place might not be so typical after all.
Starting in October 2008, the Express Inn at Cimarron and Eighth streets has quietly morphed into a hybrid of traditional motel and a place where the poor and homeless can rent a low-cost room — with access to an array of social services under one roof. But recently, the motel has gone high-profile amid an explosion of efforts to clean up the mass of homeless camps near downtown and the west side.
In the past few weeks, outreach workers have placed nearly 100 tent campers at the Express Inn, using some of a $100,000 grant from the El Pomar Foundation to cover the rent. Unlike the area’s major homeless shelter, operated by the Salvation Army, couples can live together, and residents are allowed to have pets and drink alcohol — though not to excess.
“There’s no other place in town to help these people in this capacity,” said Officer M.J. Thomson of the Colorado Springs Police Department’s Homeless Outreach Team. “They’re really trying to do the right thing.”
A new vision
It’s not how Barry Tiggemann and his mother, Nam, expected things to play out when they became managing partners of the property in 2007. They’d planned to renovate the former Holiday Inn Express, as they’d done with other motels in disrepair, and run it as your garden-variety motel.
But the economy started to go south, and they realized it wasn’t the right time to undertake a major renovation. At the same time, homeless tents started popping up just yards from their property, and some of the campers were breaking into the rooms.
“My mom said, ‘Why don’t we try to bring people in and see if we can really do something for them?’” Tiggemann said.
With help from family friend Ray Castillo Jr. — founder of the C-C Boarding Home group home for the mentally disabled — Tiggemann started a similarly named nonprofit to work in tandem with the Express Inn. The motel sublets the rooms to the C-C Boarding Home Annex.
“That way, we can get donations in through the nonprofit, and use it to assist the folks in the Express Inn,” said Tiggemann, a 27-year-old Mitchell High School graduate who majored in political science and philosophy at a small liberal arts college before he got into the motel business.
About 40 of the inn’s 180 rooms are still reserved for travelers who might be lured by its proximity to Interstate 25. The rest are rented to individuals and families who need short-term emergency stays or a long-term rental at a relatively low cost. About 300 people were living there last week, including the scores of newcomers.
“We’ve had people living here five to seven years,” Tiggemann said.
For emergency housing, rates are $15 per day or $60 a week per person, for up to three people in a room. Longer-term rates are $150 a week or $569 a month for a single-bed room for one to two people, up to $165 a week or $609 a month for a two-bed room with three to four people. The El Pomar grant is covering the cost for many of the new residents. Others cover the cost out of their paychecks or Social Security or other benefits.
The rooms have microwaves and refrigerators, and the residents get free weekly housekeeping and use of laundry facilities, 24-hour security, case management, and help filling out applications for benefits and aid. They also receive transportation to social services, medical appointments and the Pikes Peak Workforce Center. A few have even gotten jobs at the inn.
The residents receive even more, thanks to help from about 150 volunteers with the Woodmen Valley Chapel’s A Call To Serve (ACTS) program. The volunteers provide on-site nutrition programs and a twice-a-week after school program for the children who live there. They distribute food and clothing, hold optional Bible study classes and operate a medical ministry. They’ve also provided about 80 crockpots to residents, and they plan to add more adult classes to include resume writing and interviewing skills.
“What we really kind of hope we’re doing is making a motel a home,” said Dick Siever, director of community impact for ACTS.
Accountability and responsibility
Linda and Ray Lapp live in one of the “double” rooms — essentially a one-bedroom apartment with one bath, a living area and a small kitchen. They’ve been at the Express Inn since March 2009, with help from the federal Section 8 Rental Voucher Program. Neither has a car, so they appreciate the transportation services.
“The people here are really nice, and the staff is great,” said Ray Lapp, who has been unable to find a job for five years.
When a homeless man who asked to be identified only as Willy was 45 minutes into his first day at the inn, he seemed doubtful that this was the right living arrangement for him. But he took the HOT cops up on their offer to come to the Express Inn because he thought it might help him land a job. The more he considered his new surroundings, the more at home he seemed. A place to do laundry? “Cool.” An address and phone number where prospective employees can contact him? Even better.
“That’s beaten me down; there’s been no way for people to contact me,” he said.
His roommate, Mark Fields, has been in the small room with three single beds since January, paying $60 a week as he tries to get his life back on track.
“All around, it’s been a blessing,” said Fields, an ex-con who was homeless and is now going to school. “It beats being around a campfire.”
Fields likes that Express Inn enforces a variety of rules, including no drinking to excess.
Tiggemann said the program doesn’t accept just anyone. Fields’ roommate was kicked out for violating the rules, and at least nine of the more recent people brought in under the El Pomar grant were bounced for excess drinking or other infractions. Those with felonies are considered on a case-by-case basis, and sex offenders aren’t allowed, he said.
“We don’t want that here. We have kids living here,” Tiggemann said.
Tiggemann has had some public relations battles to overcome. Bob Holmes, executive director of Homeward Pikes Peak, told City Council that people were being forced to make Tiggemann’s organization their Social Security payee if they wanted to stay at the inn. But as Tiggemann’s operations have become more visible and Holmes and others have met with him, their skepticism has evaporated.
“I wouldn’t send somebody to a place I didn’t think would be safe and have proper services provided,” Holmes said.
For Tiggemann, administering a nonprofit has been a learning experience. He’s had to learn to fill out forms for residents and navigate the network of social service and mental health services.
“It’s been a crash course in Social Security and VA benefits,” he said. “You just figure it out as you go.”
But he’s glad his family’s original plans went in a different direction.
“It’s all about helping these folks become self-sufficient,” he said. “We’re not about doing things for free, though. I’m big on accountability and responsibility.”