homeless veterans

Christian Murdock/The Gazette

A homeless veteran who goes by Red walks through Monument Valley Park with his belongings Feb. 20.

Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers on Thursday touted a new fund  he said could end homelessness for the area’s military veterans. 

“Colorado Springs supports veterans and active-duty military passionately, and to the vast majority of our citizens, this (the number of homeless veterans) is unacceptable,” Suthers told about 60 community leaders Thursday at a fundraising lunch at the Penrose House. “This is a problem we can solve.”

The Pikes Peak Veteran Housing Fund seeks to raise $250,000 to get more veterans into stable housing. El Pomar Foundation committed $10,000 to kick off the new initiative, said Kyle Hybl, president and CEO of the locally based charitable organization.

Home builder and land developer Classic Homes will match the next $20,000 in donations, Suthers said.

The fund, a program of the city, Rocky Mountain Human Services’ Homes for All Veterans and Home Front Military Network, will fill gaps in the system, said Alison Gerbig, program manager for Rocky Mountain Human Services Homes for All Veterans.

Money raised will incentivize private landlords to offer more housing for homeless veterans by offsetting property damage that may  be caused by tenants, she said. Donations also will make up shortfalls between what Veterans Affairs’ housing vouchers cover and what landlords  charge for rent.

“This is more of an insurance policy; now maybe more landlords will take a chance if they know there’s money available to help them,” said Laura Nelson, executive director of the Apartment Association of Southern Colorado.

The expectation, based on similar funds in 78 other cities across the nation, is that private landlords will be willing to drop rent for homeless veterans, with assistance from the new fund making up the difference, Gerbig said. The program might also encourage cuts to utilities bills and motivate owners of large homes to rent out a room. 

“It’s a way to figure out creative solutions,” she said. “Many homeless veterans can’t even get into units to begin with.”

That’s what a man who goes by the name of Red encountered.

Red, who said he did three tours of duty overseas before coming back and living on the streets of Colorado Springs, reported that he was screened for housing but “got screwed” by the system.

“They told me to go find a place to live, and I couldn’t,” he said Thursday, while hanging out in Monument Valley Park.

Colorado Springs had the nation’s fourth-highest growth rate in rents among large cities in January, up 3.4% over the past year, compared to the national 1.4%, according to Apartment List, an online platform that connects renters with apartment listings.

The median rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Colorado Springs is $1,272, compared with the national average of $1,192, statistics show.

After being elected mayor in 2015, Suthers joined other mayors across the country in adopting a challenge to end veterans’ homelessness.

“We’ve come tantalizingly close to achieving this goal, but our booming economy means more veterans get vouchers from the local VA but in some cases, they don’t cover the costs,” Suthers said. “This (fund) makes it less likely landlords will take a cut.”

The system is difficult to navigate, homeless veterans on the streets said. One former Marine who’s been living outside for a year after simultaneously losing his job and his home, said he applied for housing and waited five weeks to hear back. Then, he gave up.

“There’s a lot of obstacles to overcome,” said the man, who asked not to be identified. “I lost interest.”

The new fund is projected to help at least 212 homeless veterans and as many as 378, Gerbig said. Her nonprofit administers a VA grant for veterans’ support services and worked with nearly 500 homeless veterans last year, with 65% obtaining permanent housing.

Veterans also receive case management to ensure they are good tenants, Gerbig said, and have access to mental health treatment, counseling for substance abuse, employment assistance and other issues that led them to spiral into homelessness.

A goal the mayor set two years ago to increase new affordable housing from 500 units per year to 1,000 units per year is on track to be reached, Suthers said. The units cost 40% to 60% of market rate, which he said will help address part of the problem.

The fledgling fund is the final prong of the city’s 2019 Homeless Initiative, said Andy Phelps, homeless prevention and response coordinator for the city.

The initiative also birthed a resource website, https://coloradosprings.gov/helpcos, infused $500,000 to increase homeless shelter capacity to nearly 700 beds and added more homeless outreach on the streets. It created a new employment opportunity for the homeless, started a new criminal justice program and hired three neighborhood service employees, who last year cleaned up 1 million pounds of trash, he said.

The actions have helped “improve the health and safety of the community,” Phelps said.

Most people never want to be homeless, Gerbig said, but find themselves in that situation after losing a job, becoming ill, having an accident, exiting military service with PTSD or being separated from family.

“No one should be without a place to call home,” she said. “Especially our veterans. We can be the first city and county in Colorado to end homelessness for veterans.”

Donations may be made at www.pmcn.org, specified for The Pikes Peak Veteran Housing Fund, or mailed to: Home Front Military Network, 1257 Lake Plaza Drive, suite 220, Colorado Springs, CO 80906, with The Pikes Peak Veteran Housing Fund in the memo line.

Contact the writer: 719-476-1656.

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