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Salvation Army unveils renovated shelter, while clock ticks on encampment

October 11, 2016 Updated: October 12, 2016 at 7:19 am
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Dinner is served at the Salvation Army's Shelter on Tuesday, October 11, 2016. photo by Jerilee Bennett,The Gazette

As one nonprofit showcased its newly renovated homeless shelter Tuesday, another was told by Colorado Springs officials to address a tent city on its property.

The Salvation Army unveiled its newly remodeled shelter by showing off more than $350,000 in improvements to Mayor John Suthers during his first tour of the facility. In doing so, the nonprofit's leaders voiced plans to increasingly shift the Salvation Army's focus to helping homeless families.

Suthers, who made addressing homelessness a top priority during his recent State of the City address, called the move a "positive step."

"I really think for the first time in a long time, we have a pretty cohesive strategy about what needs to take place," Suthers said.

The Salvation Army's shift builds off a movement among El Paso County's largest homeless service providers to divvy up care based on demographics.

In May, Catholic Charities of Central Colorado announced plans to increasingly cater to homeless families at its Marian House Soup Kitchen and nearby Hanifen Center, which already houses a day center for homeless families.

Meanwhile, Springs Rescue Mission plans to largely serve single men and women who have been homeless for months or years. To do so, the nonprofit is pumping nearly $28 million into its campus to build several services, including a shelter and a 65-unit apartment complex.

"I think probably we will not eliminate homelessness - what we need to do is minimize it," Suthers said.

Suthers' tour came as El Paso County edged closer to its cold-weather season, when homeless people fight to avoid frostbite and the deadly threat of below-freezing temperatures.

It also came as another nonprofit, Springs Rescue Mission, was told to address a burgeoning encampment on its property within two days, because it violates zoning ordinances, said Aimee Cox, the city's community development manager.

Suthers said the camp of about 55 tents has "gotten out of hand" and the problems facing it are "insurmountable." Colorado Springs police have been called 28 times to the tent city over the past three weeks, said Lt. Howard Black, a police spokesman.

"There is some concern about safety of individuals down there," Suthers said.

Suthers said to expect a "change in direction" at the camp Wednesday, but he did not elaborate.

Calls by The Gazette to the nonprofit were not returned Tuesday.

As recently as late September, city officials said the camp could stay - as long as no new tents appeared. But Suthers and Cox said more tents have appeared.

The tent city borders a massive construction project that promises to significantly boost the number of homeless shelter beds in the coming months and years.

Around 260 additional homeless beds are expected to be available by mid-November, Cox said.

That includes 234 beds at the Springs Rescue Mission's campus off Las Vegas Street, west of Tejon Street. Of those beds, 150 will be available year-round.

The Salvation Army's new additions include 22 additional beds, bringing its capacity to 222 people. It also added eight new showers, installed new steel bunks, and installed a new roof, new flooring and a new air-conditioning unit.

They are turning a 15-unit apartment complex into a facility for homeless families to live for three to six months after leaving the shelter. The building, 922 Yuma St., previously was used for longer-term housing.

The Salvation Army also expects to have its first mock-up drawings of an expansion plan to boost bed space at the shelter to 350 beds, said Maj. Richard Larson, who leads the organization.

"We really want to address situational awareness," Larson said.

Still, some homeless advocates say even more beds are needed.

At the afternoon City Council meeting, several people spoke about the need for more services for homeless people. They echoed similar concerns voiced to Suthers and City Council members at another meeting earlier in the day.

"We need more of a safety net," said one young woman, adding that she wound up in the tent city after she had been raped while living on the street. "I'm honestly begging for your help. They prey on us."

Even with a similar number of beds available last winter, a one-night survey in January found more than 300 people slept outside across El Paso County.

Some of those people, however, never sought help. Shelters established specifically to deal with the cold never hit capacity after adding additional space late last winter, Cox said.

Advocates fear this winter could be different. An informal estimate earlier this summer found the issue grew worse, with about 750 people camping or living on the streets

Trig Bundgaard, co-executive director of The Coalition for Compassion and Action, said Colorado Springs officials needed to do more. "If more beds are not created, then that means people are left to survive during our winter," Bundgaard said. "And while we have some really mind days, we also have some really brutal winter days."

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Gazette reporter Billie Stanton Anleu contributed to this report.

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