Larry Yonker, CEO and president of Springs Rescue Mission, is a Colorado native. Born in Fort Collins, Yonker attended college in Pueblo, where he played football. His wife, Kim, is from the Steel City. The two moved to Colorado Springs in 1977 where Yonker worked in computer sales before answering a higher calling. The man who as a child gave away his possessions to the less fortunate talked to the Business Journal this week about turning his compassion into a career.
Tell us about your background.
Well, I love Colorado Springs. I moved here because I had a great opportunity in the computer industry. Kim got a teaching job in District 11 and we raised our family here.
I have a degree in business administration and marketing, and did most of my graduate work at UCCS in the nonprofit certificate program.
I worked for the Burroughs Corp. in computer sales on the commercial side. Then I started my own computer business here for seven years before going to work for Unisys, which is what Burroughs Corp. had become following a merger.
But in my journey back to Unisys, I was intentional in finding work with a Christian nonprofit. I looked at different organizations and fell in love with Compassion International. I tried for two or three years to work for them and they finally hired me. I became their vice president of development and marketing after a year. Those were an amazing 10 years of my life. I got to travel the world and see poverty I’d never seen before.
I think that was a fulfillment of a burning inside me. I’ve always had compassion for broken people. To witness it and see a whole different side of humanity and the joy they get from simple things — my world-view has been formed by people living in poverty. It balanced a lot of things for me when I wasn’t sure what I was chasing. In the computer industry, there were a lot of opportunities to make a lot of money, but none of that was very motivational to me.
How did you go from Compassion International to Springs Rescue Mission?
I left Compassion after 10 years and started a consulting business called The Elevation Group and did that for 10 years. Three of those were consulting with Springs Rescue Mission. I started working with them when the mission first decided to buy a building for their men’s drug and alcohol rehab facility. We built a 43-bed facility and, as it turned out, we opened it exactly the same month the Salvation Army closed their men’s program on Weber.
Their director, Rich Palmer, moved right from the Salvation Army to here to be director of our men’s program, so we hit the ground running.
[I started as CEO and president of the mission in about 2011], and the Salvation Army had an agreement with the city that if it got below 32 degrees, [the Salvation Army] would fit in as many as they could in their shelter off Sierra Madre. Springs Rescue Mission was asked to be a backup. We laid out about a dozen mats and some chairs in our lobby. On a tough night, we might have 20 people sleeping in chairs and on mats.
I thought, ‘This is not right. We can’t just be a bed.’ We needed to understand who [the homeless] are, their story, their journey.
We then purchased the building where the shelter is now and the fire department allowed us 37 beds.
What are plans for the expansion?
Rescue missions around the country typically do shelter and feeding programs and generally for chronic homeless. They are almost all low-barrier, meaning you can come in while still using alcohol or drugs. We took it one step further and removed as many barriers as we could. We allowed them to bring their pets and we kennel their pets. We also allow them to bring their things. People have died in Colorado Springs because they weren’t going to leave their pet or belongings to be stolen.
We expanded to 63 beds the second year. During that time we were working on our current expansion plan. It was built upon Suzi Bach, Aimee Cox and Nechie Hall’s initiative to end homelessness, which listed four items as the most urgent needs: shelter beds, a day center, outreach and permanent supportive housing.
At that time, we didn’t know what permanent supportive housing looked like, but we were going to do the other three — and without the expectation that there would be any city money available to us.
Where does the expansion stand today?
Right now, every time we get a commitment, we release [contractor] Nunn [Construction] to do more work. We’re getting close to having the entire shelter day center and courtyard funded. We still have a gap, but every day we talk to foundations and people to fill that gap. Then we’ll go to Phase II, the commercial kitchen and dining facility. When we get that done, Marian House has already announced they will move homeless services to this campus and they will move more into providing family services.
Phase I will cost about $6.2 million. That doesn’t include the purchase of four buildings, which are another $1.5 million. Both phases will cost $13.8 million, including building purchases. … We have pledged about $9 million. … We’ve received some foundation grants that pay for all pre-development costs, like the architect, engineering and design. This was a very blighted area, and it took a long time to get out of the floodplain. That’s official now and will save us about $50,000 a year in floodplain insurance. It also saves on building costs. … The shelter should be done by Nov. 1. The showers and day center should be done around March and Phase I should probably be completed around June.
What would you like the mission to accomplish?
We’re focused on chronic homelessness and addiction. I believe we’ll become the very best at taking the most vulnerable in the community and moving them into some form of employment. Those who are unable to work, the mentally ill and substance abusers, we’d like to move into permanent housing. We buy into the housing-first theory to reduce harm. We see every day people who cost our system a lot of money through no fault of theirs. They’re very vulnerable. … If you look at the infrastructure cost of the 300-some chronic homeless in our community, that’s what we’re targeting. Fifty or 60 percent of them have addiction problems, and we have a men’s program that’s outstanding. We’re building a women’s program. Of the 158 beds in the new shelter, about 35 to 40 will be for women.
How does Springs Rescue differ from other missions?
A lot of rescue missions are 150, 180 years old. The Denver Rescue Mission is 125 years old. Buildings and program models were started back then. We’re starting now. We don’t have old buildings to work around or old models. We can use the best practices of 2016. We’re staying more engaged in their lives. The old model was, take them in at 5 [p.m.], feed them a meal and turn them loose at 7 a.m. and they’re back on the streets. Our model is creating a community where they can get better. They can stay here all day, literally, and if they do, we’ll find work for them.
For instance, we have our Mission Catering business which, this year, is expected to bring in about $240,000. When we get our commercial kitchen open, I think we can scale that to a three-quarters-of-a-million-dollar business.
Do you think there can be a balance between homeless and business rights?
I do. We have ordinances about vagrancy, but the truly homeless need a place to be. Our day center, for instance, was one of our highest priorities. It’s critical because of the downtown situation. If you look at cities that have addressed homelessness and vagrancy, it’s with a place for them to go. The day center will be designed to get them help. Those who are obstinate or aggressive, that’s already against the law, and they should be told to move on.
I’ve seen these models work in San Antonio and Phoenix and Duluth, Minn., where there’s a lot of alcoholism. I see people who were homeless but are now clean. When you can’t shower, you get scruffy looking. I think scruffy scares people. Clean them up and give them haircuts, and people look at them differently. Raising dignity is important to me. Homelessness shouldn’t be an identifier. It’s a condition.
How bad is the problem in Colorado Springs?
I think it’s manageable here. We have a homeless problem we can solve. We’re far better off than a lot of other places. Denver is a disaster. Grand Junction has a higher [homeless] population than we do because it’s warmer. Fort Collins has a lot of issues. Pueblo is really being overrun right now. We’re trying to help them as much as we can. They need our help.
When did you know this was your calling?
As a child I gave away things to those in need. I’ve always had a special place for those in need. But it became alive for me when I became a Christian. That was a breakthrough for me, to understand that every human being is a child of God and created in God’s image. Faith is what gives me strength in the morning to deal with very difficult people sometimes. … Even our fundraising effort is a faith journey. I put my trust in God, not any funder. Faith in raising this money is a trust that God will do it. That makes it easier.
And because of my work, I have a better understanding of humanity. We all want to label each other — liberal, conservative, Republican, Democrat. Everyone wants to label. I find it much more rewarding if we drop the labels. We’re all people.