PHOENIX — Our group’s van pulled inside the gates of the Human Services Campus, an 11-acre complex about a mile west of downtown in Arizona’s largest city, and the visitors from Colorado Springs couldn’t help but feel like invaders.
We had come here for the first stop of an intensive four-day Community Education Trip, organized by the Pikes Peak Regional Building Department, along with El Paso County to check out various aspects of the Phoenix area and what lessons might be learned in the process.
The first agenda item: homelessness. And what Phoenix has done over the past 10 years, developing and nurturing a campus dedicated solely to addressing the homeless problem, definitely was worth checking out.
We’ve heard the same idea being bounced around in Colorado Springs, perhaps creating a multi-purpose homeless facility that would provide shelter, meals and other services for people in need. But that concept, despite being pushed by Mayor Steve Bach the past two years, hasn’t gained traction.
Many viewed it as a thinly veiled attempt to fix the problem of panhandlers in our downtown. Just move the homeless away from the city center and hopefully that would solve everything. Never mind the fact that nearly all of downtown’s panhandlers actually should be called vagrants (as the Business Journal has reported several times), not homeless.
Meanwhile, Colorado Springs has done little to address its worsening homeless numbers, more than 1,200 at the last estimate. For example, we have 600,000 county residents and exactly 291 beds in shelters. Phoenix’s Maricopa County has 3 million residents (five times more) and 5,600 shelter beds (nearly 20 times more).
To match that percentage, Colorado Springs would need 1,100 shelter beds. That’s how far behind we are.
But it’s not just about beds, as we saw at this Human Services Center. It’s about dealing with the whole problem in one place.
Honestly, after first hearing of Bach’s idea, my reaction was negative. But sometimes you simply have to see a different concept for yourself before truly understanding how it works.
As our group walked around the Phoenix campus, it did feel like invading the privacy of hundreds of people whose lives had taken an unfortunate turn. But these folks weren’t languishing in despair. They had come to the Human Services Campus simply looking to revive their hope.
Here’s how it works: At any given time, somewhere between 1,000 and 1,200 people are being served in some way — but not permanently. It’s a shelter with 470 beds, and nearby facilities bring that total to about 1,000. But nobody stays more than 120 days, and the average is more like 54 days.
The environment is safe, thanks to iron fences and plenty of security, but the place doesn’t feel like a jail. The goals are to provide medical, dental and mental health care, move people into affordable housing as soon as possible and help them find jobs. In the meantime, the campus has six partner agencies that offer what’s described as an “extensive continuum of services” from meals to counseling and job coaching.
“Our real strategy is getting people into housing,” said Dave Bridge, executive director of the campus. “But it’s also about a single point of entry to receiving services, and a safe place for people to be. The idea is not to have them come back to the campus for services. Once they leave, they should be able to find the help they need in the community.”
Inevitably, the question arises: Why not cultivate something similar in Colorado Springs? As our group learned, some efforts have begun, led by the Springs Rescue Mission, which has property and partners such as AspenPointe, Peak Vista and the Veterans Administration to provide services, but that idea needs support and assistance from the city and county.
Another problem in the Springs is a severe shortage of low-income housing. Aimee Cox, manager of housing and community initiatives for the city, says the area needs “3,000 to 4,000 units. Today, for every 100 households making $17,000 or less, there is housing available for 16.”
This matters to the business community and the local economy, and it affects how we look to companies and individuals who might move or expand here.
There’s also the matter of Colorado Springs being so conservative, with many people opposed to providing such assistance to homeless people.
But the truth is, Phoenix and its Maricopa County are every bit as conservative, yet local elected officials and staff administrators have seen how much money local governments could save by dealing with the issue this way, working to end homelessness (and deal with mental illness) rather than allowing those people to drain the system.
Don’t be surprised to see Colorado Springs and El Paso County leaders making that case soon. They realize how cost-effective it should be to work toward solutions for the homeless.
It’s working in Phoenix, and from the discussions that took place this week, you’ll be hearing more about the possibilities for Colorado Springs.
And those who earlier had rejected the campus/complex idea for homeless services should give it a chance.