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Mayor Steve Bach's homeless vow in Colorado Springs raises eyebrows

October 26, 2013 Updated: October 28, 2013 at 8:47 am
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A woman named Stormy (the only name given) stops to give a pastry to Mike at the corner of Tejon Street and Bijou Street Tuesday morning, November 13, 2012. Mike, who is homeless, can quite often be found panhandling on that corner. Stormy said she was formerly homeless herself. The Gazette, Mark Reis

A vow by Colorado Springs Mayor Steve Bach last week to address homelessness across the city raised the eyebrows of people charged with serving that population.

Word for word: "We are going to solve homelessness in this city while I'm mayor. Period," Bach said.

With a little less than 20 months left in his first mayoral term, local homeless services providers feel Bach may need a reality check.

Leaders in the homeless outreach community reacted with mixed opinions this week to Bach's promise - heartened the issue has become important to the city's mayor but deeply skeptical he could ever fulfill it.

"I think it's a noble goal, and I think it's a goal we all share," said Bob Holmes, Homeward Pikes Peak's chief executive. "And there's a difference between saying it's a goal and we're going to."

"In reality, those of us who work in the field realize there will always be a percentage of the population - and I call them my 'not yet people' - that are not ready to make the effort to change their lives. And usually it tends to be people who are severely addicted" to drugs or alcohol.

In late January, Pikes Peak United Way officials led a count of 1,171 homeless people during an annual point in time survey - a count used for federal grant reporting.

Of that figure, 302 people were chronically homeless, often consisting of the crowd Holmes views as reluctant to receive services.

Bach began his push to address homelessness in fall 2012, calling for a "quantum leap" in help for the homeless. In May, he announced a concept to fulfill that wish - a campus offering emergency shelter and services for the homeless called Sunrise Village - in front of dozens of nonprofit leaders.

The idea has since stalled, saddled by the city's inability to find a suitable property.

Bach said he now sees the city acting as a "catalyst" to address the issue.

"By empowering, I mean not only encouragement, but helping to find funding sources," Bach said. "And importantly - and it's always been this way in this city - getting various organizations to work together."

Through a spokesman Friday, the mayor softened his statement. Instead of solving the challenge of homelessness by the end of his term, he called for a "definitive, coordinated plan" with service providers for addressing it.

A 2009 strategic plan for addressing homelessness is slated to be reviewed this year, and city officials also plan to work with El Paso County to conduct a survey of affordable housing across the region.

On Thursday, Bach declined to offer a specific new plan to address the issue - rather, vowing an announcement by the beginning of 2014.

In dealing with that population, homeless services providers offered a common refrain - a need for more financial backing.

"I always get a little uncomfortable, maybe, with a statement like that (Bach's vow)," said Michael Royal, Interfaith Hospitality Network of Colorado Springs' executive director. "I think it highlights everyone's desire to put ourselves out of business, to have solutions in place that address the concerns that lead to homelessness.

"But that's always a challenge; where are the resources?"

Bach's proposed 2014 budget offers little room for more city funding.

The proposed 2014 general fund allocation to housing services - a nearly $250,000 commitment - is virtually unchanged from 2013, dropping $267.

City officials also expect federal housing grants to decrease by nearly $700,000 in 2014 - a drop that would include major cuts to rehabilitation projects at affordable housing units.

Understanding the city's affordable housing options - and the thin financial line that many low-income families toe - is key to grasping the scope of the city's homeless issue, Royal said.

Slightly more than half of the people who rent in El Paso County dedicate more than 30 perecnt of their income to housing, according to 2012 U.S. Census data.

Also, slightly less than one-third of homeowners pay more than that rate toward their mortgage.

The issue comes down to how Bach defines solving the issue of homelessness, said Carolyn McDole, Ecumenical Social Ministries' executive director. There are already myriad services across the city, she said, each collaborating with each other to form a massive safety net for low income families and people without a place to live.

"We've been trying to do that for eight years," McDole said. " . Solving homeless, if the meaning is we have no more homeless in our city, I don't know how that can be done."

Often, the issue simply comes down to patience, observers say.

"If you want to have permanent change, it's going to take time," said the Rev. Joe Vazquez, the Springs Rescue Mission's chief executive.


Contact Jakob Rodgers: 476-1654

Twitter @jakobrodgers

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