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Search for homelessness solutions in Colorado Springs continues, even after some thought they had answers

August 31, 2014 Updated: September 2, 2014 at 12:07 pm
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A child points at a homeless man passed out by the sidewalk in Antlers Park Monday, August 4, 2014. Photo by Julia Moss, The Gazette

Five years ago, homeless camps crowded the banks of Monument and Fountain creeks, garnering national attention and engaging the community like few other issues have.

Everyone, it seemed, had a solution: Start a day center where people could hang out, work on job skills and get services. Turn private property into a campground with amenities and services. Hire more outreach workers.

There were some results. A few specialized outreach and housing programs sprang up, and the City Council passed a camping ban on public property, having been told there were enough beds to shelter the tent campers.

The situation also brought attention to other, less visible, groups of homeless people: teens and families who may not have been living in tents, but were nonetheless putting pressure on social services and struggling to get by.

In spite of the heightened awareness of homelessness and flurry of suggestions and programs to combat it, the Colorado Springs area has yet to make a dent in its homeless population.

More than 1,200 homeless people live in El Paso County, slightly more than before the Great Recession took hold, according to the latest annual survey of the population.

Local homeless experts and advocates point to several factors for the continued high numbers:

- A pressing need for more emergency shelter.

- A need for more mental health services and trained outreach workers.

- A severe shortage of affordable housing.

- A need for greater collaboration among the city's nonprofits.

"Our community as a whole is not providing enough resources to decisively address the problem," said Steve Brown, executive director of Westside CARES. "For people at the lower end of the socio-economic scale, I'm pretty sure that things have not improved."

There is hope that things might change soon, city officials say. Mayor Steve Bach's office has a $5 million plan to address homelessness - envisioning increased emergency shelter beds, a day center, more outreach and greater affordable housing options. But the plan relies mostly on federal funding, with no new city money.

The chronically homeless

One of the more vexing populations is the chronically homeless - people or families with a disabling condition who have either been homeless for at least a year or homeless at least four times in the last three years. It's a population that tends to suffer from debilitating physical or mental conditions, abuse alcohol and/or drugs, and sleep in tents, doorways and cars.

The 2010 camping ban was meant, in part, to help get the chronic homeless out of tents, into shelter and, as needed, into mental health and drug treatment programs. While many in the chronic homeless population have been helped off the streets over the last few years, others have taken their place, and some question whether the ban has fully accomplished that goal.

"I don't want to say they've gotten better at hiding, but they have..." said the Rev. Laura Lowe of Lighthouse Mobile Ministries. "They have scattered around the city."

When the camping ban took effect, city officials touted the threat of tickets as a tool to coax campers off the streets and into housing and treatment programs.

Herculean efforts typically precede each citation, police officers say. They offer multiple warnings, arrange for medical care and reserve housing. Only when campers spurn those efforts - often repeatedly - do officers write a ticket, and they've issued only a few: 13 in the four-and-a-half years since the camping ban took effect, including nine in the last year.

"Our whole mission is not to arrest people. Our mission is to help people," said Brett Iverson, with the Colorado Springs Police Department's Homeless Outreach Team. "We're not going to arrest our way out of the homeless problem."

Housing units are not always available.

The city lost 63 emergency housing beds from 2013 to 2014, leaving 463 spots. Much of that was due to the closure of the Aztec Motel - a program created amid the camping ban debate to help people get off the streets. The drop in open beds would have been worse had the Springs Rescue Mission not opened an overnight shelter during winter.

Surveyors counted 269 people who went without shelter on one night in January during the Point In Time homeless count, a 17 percent increase from the previous year.

The emergency beds offer a first step - a short-term roof until more permanent arrangements can be found. They are only one part of the equation, advocates for the homeless say. Chronically homeless people also need case management, life skills and treatment services, including mental health care and substance abuse help.

While the local nonprofit AspenPointe fields a team of counselors that reach out to homeless people to get them off the streets and treat their underlying physical and mental conditions, more help and services are needed, said Cheryl Stine, senior manager of AspenPointe's adult services.

Medicaid's recent expansion under the Affordable Care Act will help by offering health care coverage to people who previously didn't qualify for the program. But it does little good if people don't sign up or actively utilize use those services.

In the end, housing amounts to a strong first step in solving homelessness, Stine said.

"It's very hard to address other needs when a person has no consistent shelter," Stine said. "And what we're finding since the camping ban is that people are moving their camps more often, so they can't stay in any one place for very long."

A lack of affordable housing

Although most visible, chronically homeless people represent only about a quarter of the county's overall homeless population.

Many are families, a demographic that is difficult to count because they often "couch surf," meaning they live with relatives or friends. While the Point in Time survey said 254 children were homeless on that January day, five El Paso County school districts tallied far more: 883.

Their situation illuminates a larger problem: El Paso County suffers from a severe lack of affordable housing, said Anne Beer, Pikes Peak United Way's director of community information systems.

About half of the county's renters in 2012 paid 30 percent or more of their monthly income on housing, as do about a third of homeowners with a mortgage, according to an analysis by a Pittsburgh-based consulting firm recently hired by the city and the county for a housing assessment. Families who pay at least this much on housing costs are considered "cost burdened," and may struggle to pay for other needs such as transportation, food and medical care.

"We don't really know how many people out there are living on the edge," Beer said. "It only takes one disaster. There's not a lot of wiggle room."

The city needs more than 18,400 units to meet its affordable housing shortfall this year, and that figure is expected to grow by 8 percent in five years, the consulting firm found.

"We have low wages and high rents, and that is a recipe for disaster," said Michael Royal, executive director of Interfaith Hospitality Network of Colorado Springs.

Problems aren't new

Few of these problems are new to the city staffers who have been charged with overseeing the mayor's latest homeless initiative.

Part of the initiative's goal is to raise awareness about the issue, while building the city's capacity to serve the homeless and move them into permanent homes, said Aimee Cox, who took over the city's troubled housing division last year, with the goal of providing better oversight and organization. The division is tasked with overseeing affordable housing development and many grants that help homeless service providers.

But that initiative - costing at least $5 million over two years - does not include a sizable chunk of new money, particularly from the city.

In reality, funding to combat homelessness appears more dependent upon people on Capitol Hill than in city hall.

Though the city's general fund budget surpassed pre-recession levels for the first time this year, city spending on housing programs is lower than it was during the economic downturn.

In 2009, before Colorado Springs' budget tumbled, the city allocated nearly $550,000 for housing services, with more than $400,000 of that going to competitive grants for social service programs. That has decreased roughly 50 percent and about 65 percent, respectively.

Further, the federal grants expected to be used for the initiative are the same type that have long been given to Colorado Springs - meaning the plan does not include new money sources.

Cox said she is confident the city will secure the federal funding needed for the initiative to work, adding that the city has adopted a more efficient means to spend its grants, and is also using unspent money from years past. Both will help ensure the mayor's projects are completed, she said.

Cox also stressed that the initiative remains largely in the planning stages.

"I'm not a big believer in just having a big pot of money and figuring out how to use it," Cox said. "I want to be able to say this is what we need to accomplish, here is the proposal, it is feasible, it is supported - and then ask for the funding."

But it's up to nonprofits and developers to seek the federal grant money flowing through the city - a process that will begin in about a month, she said. The city does not provide direct services, but funnels grants to organizations and businesses that do.

Overall, Bach's homeless effort has garnered some positive reviews from nonprofit leaders, because he has offered leadership on the issue - a distinct change from past administrations, they say.

Bach's office plans to increase emergency shelter beds, as well as homeless outreach. Plans for a day center, though, are on hold - a move meant to allow nonprofits more time to prepare their building plans before applying for grant funding.

Where's the solution?

For now, homeless advocates and leaders say they want greater collaboration among the city's nonprofits and churches, including more financial buy-in and better coordination.

"I think it's important the nonprofit sector is not just part of the solution, but to be the solution," said Andy Petersen, development director for Pikes Peak Habitat for Humanity.

A first step in that process will come this fall, when a new 10-year plan will be developed for the region's Continuum of Care, which consists of several nonprofits that receive federal grants. It operates under a federal mandate to streamline and coordinate federally funded local housing programs that help homeless people segue from shelters to more permanent housing.

The Continuum last created a 10-year plan in 2009, but it didn't meet a string of federal requirements that took effect the last few years. A governing board is being created, one that will oversee a reformed membership process that will include working groups and regular meetings to set priorities for the city.

Whether the new group will make inroads where others haven't remains to be seen.

"I've been here going on 19 years, and they've always had a 10-year initiative every year," said Gene Morris, at the Salvation Army's R.J. Montgomery Center. "... So I don't know - maybe one year they'll get it right. It would be nice to work myself out of a job."

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