More than 100 homeless people living in tents on Springs Rescue Mission property were ordered to leave Oct. 12 after the nonprofit received a zoning violation due to a rapid increase in campers and complaints.
The city of Colorado Springs’ Neighborhood Services Division issued the citation after receiving a number of calls for service to the area for assaults and disturbances with weapons, including a Springs Rescue Mission security director being chased out of the camp with a baseball bat.
Liability fell on the nonprofit that was given 48 hours to remove campers and personal property from its parking lot.
“I felt like I had to take action today,” said Springs Rescue Mission CEO and President Larry Yonker at a press conference. “This is a pretty devastating day for us having to make a decision to close the encampment that has existed over the last six weeks.”
On Sept. 15, homeless citizens began setting up tents on Springs Rescue Mission’s four and a half acre campus between Las Vegas and Tejon streets. The camp originated with four tents, then 12 and eventually 55, increasing the number of people, drugs and alcohol at the site, Yonker said.
“It hasn’t been a very good environment but started out small and manageable,” he said. “We no longer had the resources to manage it and when we were, the more it looked like we were intentional about this is being a solution for the community — and it’s not. It’s a low-barrier group and no longer safe with that many people congregated in a small area.”
So what is the city and Springs Rescue Mission’s solution for evicted campers?
The nonprofit’s new shelter will offer 234 low-barrier beds, and in total with its service providers (Catholic Charities, Urban Peak and the R.J. Montgomery Center) will provide 488 beds for the homeless population. Beds will be available for women Nov. 1 and for men Nov. 10.
Springs Rescue Mission is also building a day center and 65-unit apartment complex to be completed in 2018.
In the meantime, no low-barrier beds are available; Yonker said a construction crew is working around the clock to open the new shelter on time.
“We have a crisis in our community that we’re working hard with the city to solve, using all of the resources we have,” he said. “We’ve borrowed money to buy real estate and done all that we can to try and get ready for this day but have had some delays in funding and challenges on our campus.”
Aimee Cox, community development manager for the city, said providers from the Department of Human Services and Catholic Charities were on site yesterday to connect campers to resources, including available beds at The Salvation Army’s shelter.
“There are barriers and conditions to get into that facility but many people qualify,” she said.
Last year, when the city increased its number of beds at The Salvation Army shelter to 463 in response to people being turned away in freezing temperatures, everyone who sought shelter received it, Cox said.
“Once capacity was increased we never again had to turn somebody away who was seeking shelter in the winter,” she said.
By the end of the day, all campers had cleared the area and clean-up crews arrived this morning to remove trash.
If campers return, they will be trespassing, Cox said.
“The city has been working for nearly three years to increase the number of shelter beds in the community,” she said. “We’ve been really focused on creating the long-term plan so we can get out of this every year crisis response and can be more effective moving people into housing.”
Carrie Baatz from the community organizing group, People’s Access to Homes, visited the camp three times last week. She said she noticed how quickly it had grown but knew women who said they felt safe there.
“When homeless women can’t stay in one place for very long and have to keep moving around, it’s not a safe situation and they’re at high risk for sexual assault,” she said. “Our city is behind in the way we manage shelter systems and in the way we collect data on the homeless population, and we must do better.”
It’s a misconception that affordable housing is someone else’s problem, Baatz said.
“It affects all of us. As housing costs continue to rise, we’re finding over half of our renters are cost burdened and when people have difficulty affording necessities such as food, clothing, transportation and medical care — it trickles down and impacts the economy.”