A greater attention to the plight of homeless families, more police patrols and a revamped approach to street outreach are among Colorado Springs officials’ recently finalized plans for addressing homelessness in the coming year.
The 2019 Colorado Springs Homelessness Initiative takes aim at several facets of homelessness in a city that has seen the number of people sleeping outside, in shelters or in their vehicles grow for years, while options for affordable housing dwindle.
The blueprint emerged from months of deliberations and town halls that drew hundreds of people to meetings across the city.
It hews largely to a draft issued in October, and its targeted completion date is the same: Dec. 31. However, it includes a few new additions, such as a bid to help families, greater enforcement of camping bans and a different approach to outreach.
Mayor John Suthers has touted it as key in addressing an issue that ranks among the most frequent complaints received by the city.
“It will help a lot more with what I call the ground game,” said City Council President Richard Skorman.
“We really need to grow those basic foundations of ways to address this, especially the chronically homeless.”
The latest plan focuses on five main goals, led by increasing education about homelessness through the city’s HelpCOS.org website and additional community meetings.
The goals also include:
• Broader access to shelter and services
• Reducing barriers for “people ready to exit homelessness”
• Improving access to housing
• Cleaning up illegal camps as a means to protect the environment
In practice, that means pursuing many programs previously touted by the city’s draft proposal four months ago.
The final plan still calls for establishing a fund for private donors to help house homeless military veterans, and for the creation of a “homeless court” that would offer alternatives to fines or jail for many municipal offenses.
The city also still intends to select an organization to create a homeless work program, and it intends to create a plan for addressing the city’s affordable housing shortage.
In addition, the plan still calls for creating 370 more “low-barrier” shelter beds, where admission is based on behavior, not sobriety. Much of that extra shelter space opened last year, when Springs Rescue Mission opened a new 150-bed building and the Salvation Army lowered admission requirements for 120 of the 220 beds at its R.J. Montgomery shelter.
To hit 370, the Salvation Army still must complete a renovation project that will allow the 100 remaining beds at that shelter to be low barrier, while adding about 40 additional beds for families.
The shelter beds were expected to cost about $2 million — most of which has been paid for using federal grants and a $500,000 special appropriation from the city’s general fund.
As was the case in October, the final plan includes no other cost estimates, while largely relying on federal grants and donations.
Andrew Phelps, the city’s homelessness prevention and response coordinator, has repeatedly said the plan wasn’t meant to end homelessness.
“We really wanted to focus on attainable, near-term goals and objectives in this initiative,” Phelps said. “We want to see positive results in our community within the next year.”
New to the finalized plan are more downtown police patrols, and an increase in the Police Department’s Homeless Outreach Team from four officers to six. That’s on top of the three additional code enforcement officers that the city already promised to hire for additional homeless encampment cleanups, at a cost of $171,000.
Also, the final plan scrapped the creation of a COS Ambassador program that would have catered to homeless individuals and tourists alike in downtown and Old Colorado City.
Some nonprofits questioned the approach, which was modeled on a similar initiative in San Antonio. As a result, the city will work with the Pikes Peak Continuum of Care to pilot a different, yet-to-be-finalized outreach model, Phelps said.
The most notable change to the plan came in its scope.
Originally, the plan focused exclusively on adults without children. But almost immediately, residents and nonprofit leaders questioned that decision.
Some feared the city had forsaken a hidden demographic to focus on people living in more visible encampments or on downtown city streets.
Others pointed to a dire need for help. Family Promise of Colorado Springs, for example, turns away 60 to 80 families a month because of its limited capacity, said Michael Royal, the nonprofit’s executive director. And other nonprofts have reported similar issues.
“For those of us who are working with families, we’re just feeling the pain of the trauma that is being experienced by children and their parents,” Royal said.
“It’s been so important the city has come to hear it, and obviously we need the wider community to hear it, so we can get the resources in place to change that.”
Seeking to meet that need, the final plan calls for a Homeless Family Solutions Collaborative to lay the groundwork for a new low-barrier family shelter, including finding property and funding, as well as an agency to operate it.
One option may be to purchase a motel and renovate it, Phelps said — meaning families could stay together in one unit, rather than be separated based on age and gender, as is the case at the R.J. Montgomery shelter. Royal, who plans to be involved in the effort, said the city would likely be asked to pitch in funding once a plan for the shelter is devised.
The plan builds off a proposal that several nonprofits made late last year, which seeks to create 20 “low-barrier” family shelter units and 40 transitional housing units.
“I’m proud that the providers took the first step on this, and that the city is validating both the need and their interest in seeing this move forward,” said Jennifer Polk, chief operating officer for Catholic Charities of Central Colorado.
It all means the city has “a big job in front of them,” said Jennifer Mariano, the local Continuum of Care’s program manager. But, she added, the city’s collaborative approach and openness to feedback has been key.
“I’m excited about the possibilities,” Mariano said. “I do think they have their work cut out for them. But again, with getting feedback and a more collaborative approach, I feel like they can make a lot of headway.”