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Colorado Springs warming shelter opens after Salvation Army wins approval

January 3, 2018 Updated: January 4, 2018 at 6:15 am
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photo - Rick Montoya lets out a big yawn as he settles into a warm place to sleep for the night. The Salvation Army planned to open its emergency warming shelter at 6 p.m. Wednesday after gaining a key permit to operate its Weber Street facility. The nonprofit received a conditional use permit around midday Wednesday from the Downtown Review Board, which voted 5-1 to allow the facility to operate whenever overnight temperatures are forecast to reach 38 degrees or colder. Wednesday, January 3, 2017. (Photo by Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette)
Rick Montoya lets out a big yawn as he settles into a warm place to sleep for the night. The Salvation Army planned to open its emergency warming shelter at 6 p.m. Wednesday after gaining a key permit to operate its Weber Street facility. The nonprofit received a conditional use permit around midday Wednesday from the Downtown Review Board, which voted 5-1 to allow the facility to operate whenever overnight temperatures are forecast to reach 38 degrees or colder. Wednesday, January 3, 2017. (Photo by Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette) 

Seven hours after the Salvation Army won approval to open its contentious Weber Street shelter, Judy Pastore walked out of the cold and onto a sleeping mat.

"The housing issue's a mess," said Pastore, 61. "It's going to save lives."

The Downtown Review Board voted 5-1 on Wednesday to allow the Salvation Army to operate its emergency warming shelter through April 30 whenever overnight temperatures are forecast to dip to 38 degrees or colder.

The approval capped the Salvation Army's about-face on a 2-year-old pledge to Lowell neighborhood residents and business owners never to reopen the facility, amid complaints that it became an unsanitary blight and an unsafe nuisance when last open.

Within three hours, nearly two dozen people were inside eating dinner and preparing their foam sleeping pads.

Pastore, who has been homeless on and off for two years, said the shelter would inevitably fill up in the coming months.

"When it hits 4 degrees and the snow comes, people will be here," she said.

The Salvation Army planned to open its emergency warming shelter at 6 p.m. Wednesday after gaining a key permit to operate its Weber Street facility. The nonprofit received a conditional use permit around midday Wednesday from the Downtown Review Board, which voted 5-1 to allow the facility to operate whenever overnight temperatures are forecast to reach 38 degrees or colder. Those needing a warm place for the night file into the back door of the warm shelter as it opened on Wednesday, January 4, 2017. (Photo by Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette) 

Paul Elliott, 53, checked in almost every night during the shelter's 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons.

But he remained outside last winter when the shelter was closed - enduring nights that left him chilled to the bone.

"It became almost like a home," Elliott said.

More than 20 people spoke in support of the proposal, including representatives of the Pikes Peak Continuum of Care, the Downtown Partnership of Colorado Springs and Community Health Partnership. Many called it an issue of "life or death," and some challenged the notion of Colorado Springs as an "Olympic City" on the rise.

"You can't be great if you're not good," said Morgan Chavez, 36. "And you're not good if you're letting people freeze to death on the streets. It's a very low bar to set."

Downtown Review Board member Kristin Heggem said she had little choice but to issue the conditional use permit.

"Saving a person's life is not weighted the same as, I don't know, somebody running in front of a car in rush-hour traffic, disturbing traffic patterns," Heggem said.

In opposition was Jeff Markewich, who voiced concerns the facility strayed from zoning codes and that it would negatively impact the surrounding neighborhood.

"We're not cold-hearted bureaucrats up here," Markewich said. "But on the other hand, there's the general welfare of the neighborhood. So balancing those two is a very difficult thing."

The Salvation Army planned to open its emergency warming shelter at 6 p.m. Wednesday after gaining a key permit to operate its Weber Street facility. The nonprofit received a conditional use permit around midday Wednesday from the Downtown Review Board, which voted 5-1 to allow the facility to operate whenever overnight temperatures are forecast to reach 38 degrees or colder. Wednesday, January 3, 2017. (Photo by Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette) 

He echoed the concerns of five people who spoke up against the proposal, one of whom recalled human feces in his backyard and packages stolen from his front porch.

An attorney for the nearby Water Works Car Wash & Detail Center acknowledged homelessness is a community problem.

"But who's taking the brunt of that impact? It's this particular neighborhood," said the attorney, Greg O'Boyle.

He said repeatedly approving seasonal permits "only allows the Salvation Army, the city and everyone else who cares about this problem - of which I am one - to kick the can down the road and not really face a permanent solution."

"My client would request denial, but if it's going to be approved, this should be the last year," O'Boyle said before the decision. "Force this issue to be actually addressed."

City officials, meanwhile, hailed the move as a necessary stop-gap measure to help partnering nonprofits find a longer-term solution.

The city remains mired in a severe shortage of shelter beds - burdened by a rising homeless population and lack of affordable housing, which has prevented people from moving into apartments.

The Springs Rescue Mission has routinely operated at or near its capacity of 320 people, and the Salvation Army's R.J. Montgomery shelter has seen vacancies drop, too.

"We're full - we're beyond full," said Terry Anderson, the Springs Rescue Mission's chief operating officer. "We need Weber Street tonight."

At least one person has frozen to death in recent months while living outside.

David Lindfors, 67, was found dead the morning of Oct. 31 near Colorado Avenue. He died of hypothermia and was inebriated at the time, according to an autopsy by the El Paso County Coroner's Office.

Colorado Springs officials approached the Salvation Army a few months ago about opening the shelter, and they did not consider any other locations, said Andrew Phelps, the city's homelessness prevention and response coordinator.

The Salvation Army planned to open its emergency warming shelter at 6 p.m. Wednesday after gaining a key permit to operate its Weber Street facility. The nonprofit received a conditional use permit around midday Wednesday from the Downtown Review Board, which voted 5-1 to allow the facility to operate whenever overnight temperatures are forecast to reach 38 degrees or colder. Those needing a warm place for the night wait outside the back door of the warming shelter before it opened on Wednesday, January 3, 2017. (Photo by Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette) 

The facility, 505 S. Weber St., can accommodate up to 150 people a night on sleeping mats. It's a so-called "low-barrier" shelter, meaning admission is based on behavior, not sobriety. Pets are allowed.

Several changes have been made to address residents' concerns, said Jeane Turner, a Salvation Army spokeswoman.

Security cameras were installed, and a security firm was hired to patrol the area, Turner said. The facility's hours were extended - now 6 p.m. to 9 a.m. - to avoid scores of people flooding Weber Street around rush hour. And people lining up to enter would be asked to do so in the building's back parking lot, minimizing loitering along Weber Street. Portable bathrooms also were installed.

In addition, the shelter's staff will pick up trash throughout the surrounding neighborhood - particularly on days when the shelter doesn't open, Salvation Army leaders said.

Each change was outlined in a wide-ranging management agreement attached to the permit, giving the city more enforcement muscle if issues arise.

So far, at least $255,000 has been pledged to operate the facility, including $50,000 from the El Pomar Foundation and $50,000 each from the city and El Paso County's general funds, and $100,000 more is expected to come from the city's federal Community Development Block Grant allocation. At least $5,000 is from First Presbyterian Church.

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