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Homeless population reaches 10-year high in El Paso County

May 10, 2018 Updated: May 11, 2018 at 3:11 pm
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Kristen Bailey with Rocky Mountain Human Services, left, and Colorado Springs Police Homeless Outreach Team officer Tim Kippel walk past a homeless campsite south of downtown Colorado Springs Monday, January 23, 2017 while conducting the annual Point in Time survey of the homeless. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette

The number of people living homeless in El Paso County rose for the third straight year, exceeding those counted in a survey eight years ago at the height of the Great Recession.

Across the county, 1,551 people agreed to be counted during the annual Point in Time homeless survey in January - more than at any point in at least the last 10 years, and 88 more than in 2010, according to results released Thursday.

Homeless advocates attributed part of the rise to better surveying - an inexact science that always undercounts the number of people living outside or in shelters.

This year, 180 people volunteered to count homeless campers and people in shelters - a 50-percent increase from 2017. Many of those volunteers were with the nonprofit Blackbird Outreach, which focused on doing a better job of counting homeless campers along the city's creek beds.

But the latest figure - up 45 percent since the survey's previous low of 1,073 people in 2015 - also lends credence to the growing consensus among nonprofit leaders and advocates that homelessness is on the rise in Colorado Springs and the county. Only once in the last eight years has the county's homeless count dropped.

Homeless advocates stressed that pinning down any one reason for the increase in recent years is impossible. One common refrain, however, was the area's lack of affordable housing.

"We need the right kind of shelter, and we need more of all kinds of housing," said Shawna Kemppainen, executive director of Urban Peak, a youth shelter. "That's the community takeaway."

"The economy's going to - we hope - continue to do well," Kemppainen added. "But it doesn't lift everyone up. And as a community, we have to make the decision that we will offer that hand and provide some options."

Andrew Phelps, the city's homelessness prevention and response coordinator, expressed hope that some recent and upcoming programs - a shift in recent years to more easily-accessible beds, and a couple first-of-their-kind apartment buildings for the Pikes Peak region - could help.

"I feel it's unfair to judge a community for an increase in the homeless count, and say that 'Obviously what you're doing isn't working,'" Phelps said. "I think we just need to do more of it."

The survey is conducted annually, and the results are used by a coalition of nonprofits to seek federal funding for addressing homelessness.

It's considered the best one-time snapshot of homelessness in the region. And it aims to answer one overarching question: Where did people sleep on a specific night - in this case, Jan. 28.

As always, the survey's results were dependent upon volunteers finding people sleeping outside, and upon those homeless people agreeing to be included in the survey. The count also does not account for seasonal fluctuations in the county's homeless population, or people who were "couch surfing."

This year, 513 people were counted living unsheltered - meaning sleeping outside in camps or on the streets, an 12 percent increase from a year ago, and nearly as many people found living outside in 2010, when 572 people were found unsheltered.

One thing was certain: Not enough space existed at shelters across the city, had those people wanted to come indoors.

Every bed at low-barrier shelters in the city, such as the Springs Rescue Mission, where admission is based on behavior, not sobriety, was taken the night of the survey.

The only other beds available were inaccessible for much of the city's homeless population - 84 beds were available for families, youths or people in respite care. Another 21 open beds mandated sobriety.

About 65 sleeping mats went unused that night, including at the Salvation Army's low-barrier emergency warming shelter off Weber Street. It could accommodate 150 people a night, but it recently closed for the season after four months in operation.

Kemppainen said a reticence to visit shelters and use those mats is often understandable. For example, many people struggle with past traumas, deep anxiety and substance use disorders that make utilizing shelters difficult.

Also, Kemppainen added, many people are "just not wanting to let go of that last bit of control that they have in life, which is where they plant their feet."

Phelps added that the figures show a dire need for more easily-accessible shelter beds.

"If shelters are adding any type of beds in their program, it needs to be low-barrier beds" Phelps said, adding he's working on a long-term plan for increasing those.

The survey also dispelled a myth that the majority of homeless people are from out of state, drawn by the legalization of marijuana. Sixty-one percent of people counted said the last place they had stable housing was in El Paso County, slightly more than last year.

The number of chronically homeless people - anyone with a disabling condition who has been homeless for at least a year, or homeless at least four times in the past three years - declined from 374 to 345.

And the number of unsheltered children ages 17 and younger dropped from 23 last year to nine in January. Overall, the number of homeless children counted dropped by about 50, to 231, although school district counts often are far higher, due to different counting methodologies.

Still, the number of homeless youths ages 18 to 24 rose from 113 to 139.

And the count of homeless veterans remained largely unchanged at 193 - a drop of five people from the previous year.

Phelps said he's developing a program to help homeless veterans better utilize federal housing vouchers that landlords continue to turn down, due to their relatively low reimbursement.

To move the needle on the larger homeless population, he called on the city's developers and nonprofits to partner on more projects emulating Greenway Flats or Freedom Springs - planned apartment complexes that are geared toward housing chronically homeless people and veterans.

"If people want to see less chronically homeless people in our community, we have to have more permanent supportive housing for these folks, to have somewhere for them to go," Phelps said.

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