Winter has arrived. Along with the snow and frozen breath in the morning, there the usual signs of seasonal change.
Other changes we see with dropping temperatures are less welcome. Like increased signs of homelessness.
We are familiar in the Pikes Peak region with the sight of the people pushing shopping carts across icy sidewalks or streets. And we all recognize the columns of smoke rising from the campers.
This is the time of year, where we will talk more often about local homelessness. As can be expected, the city of Colorado Springs has released a homeless action plan for 2018/2019. I had a short, but delightful conversation with one of authors of that plan, Andrew Phelps — our homelessness prevention and response coordinator at the city of Colorado Springs.
Phelps was literally carrying the latest action plan in his pocket. I had to smile. Phelps is always ready to talk about decreasing our region’s homelessness. He articulates succinctly the goal that “homelessness in Colorado Springs be rare, brief, and nonrecurring”.
The 8-point plan is as follows:
1. Continue educating the public via the HelpCOS campaign
2. Add an additional 370 low barrier shelter beds
3. Implement a Homeless Outreach Court
4. Establish a veteran incentive fund
5. Develop a comprehensive affordable housing plan
6. Support funding for homeless work program with area nonprofit
7. Add neighborhood services staff to aid in cleaning up illegal camps.
8. Develop concept for a “HelpCOS Ambassador Team” for downtown and Old Colorado City areas.
This plan is practical in both long and short term. With the help of many nonprofit organizations, city and county government, we seem to have gained some insight over the last year. Phelps says that this plan is based upon the best practices nationally with many examples of favorable results in other cities.
I deeply appreciate the plan’s nods to affordable housing, increased sheltering and helping area veterans, but I’d like to draw your attention to the Homeless Outreach Court.
The Homeless Outreach Court is designed to address the needs of the chronically homeless population. Often the unhoused find themselves caught in the judicial system for minor charges. Charges (as they should) have consequences that can include fines, warrants for arrest and jailing for failure to appear.
However, I need you to consider, state support of prisoners is an expensive choice (for taxpayers) that increases the dependency of those imprisoned upon government. Generally, people do not pick up marketable skills in jail or prison. That makes finding work upon release difficult. Lack of work can lead to driving that person right back into homelessness.
That is not a winning prospect for any of us.
Our new Homeless Outreach Court will allow homeless people facing nonviolent misdemeanor charges to have the charges cleared — in exchange for getting into case management.
Accountability for the incorrect behavior is built into the case management. Assistance with services, which can include return to work programs, health care and housing resources are provided. Using inexpensive services — often delivered by area nonprofits — not government is an absolute win. For all of us.
We know that outcomes of programs like this. They work.
Ten states in our nation have created homeless courts. Those courts address minor offenses or outstanding warrants in tax saving and life-saving ways. Homeless Outreach Courts save taxpayers money by reducing or eliminating jail time plus the costs of tracking down individuals to serve warrants. The savings are simple but effective.
I’d like to wrap up with some words from our mayor. “The goal of this plan is progress,” says Suthers. “…we owe it to all our residents, homeless and housed alike, to take steps to mitigate the situation, and I think this plan is a good starting point.”
So, do I. The city of Colorado Springs will host town halls to gather public input on the plan.
The next is: from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Oct. 25 at City Council chambers, 107 N. Nevada Ave.
Rachel Stovall is a longtime community advocate and organizer. Also a fundraising, media and marketing consultant, Stovall is most known for singing with her dance band Phat Daddy and the Phat Horn Doctors.