Every evening, when Terra Verde Assistant Manager Carrie Baker leaves the Tejon Street store, she makes sure someone else walks with her.
“There are homeless sleeping in the alley when we come to work and when we leave,” Baker said. “Every day on the corner of Bijou and Tejon and at Kiowa and Tejon, there are people panhandling. Some are gently asking for money, and others are more aggressive. Even if they don’t approach, there are people sitting on the corners that I’m not comfortable with.”
Baker is aware that Springs Rescue Mission and other organizations are working to help homeless people get off the street and that the city has passed measures to try and deal with aggressive panhandlers. But Baker said she doesn’t think they’ve made a difference in resolving the issues downtown businesses face.
“I have not seen a change at all,” she said.
Dale Stamp watches a line of people form every morning outside Penrose Library that he says are homeless people waiting to get inside.
“They go to the Marian House for lunch and then back to the library or downtown to panhandle or hang out in the parks,” Stamp said. “I went to the library about two weeks ago. Almost every chair was filled with homeless … individuals. The library has become a homeless shelter.”
Stamp, who owns Quantum Commercial Group Inc., a commercial real estate brokerage, said he has watched homeless people on downtown street corners for 25 years.
“They used to look like victims,” Stamp said. “Over time, it appears that most of us business owners have become the victims. All of us have horror stories about what is taking place and how it continues to deteriorate our downtown. Your natural instinct is to feel sorry for them and try to help them out. But it’s a different breed than it used to be, and it is hurting business downtown.”
Luke Travins, co-owner of Concept Restaurants José Muldoon’s, Colorado Craft, Flatiron’s and MacKenzie’s Chop House, said the people who are causing problems downtown aren’t the ones who are engaged with Springs Rescue Mission and other programs.
“I differentiate panhandling,” said Travins, who is chair of the board of Homeward Pikes Peak, an agency that provides counseling and housing for people struggling with homelessness and substance abuse. “It’s the drugged-up, aggressive, younger, transient population that scares people off. People refuse to come downtown. They don’t want their children to be around those types.”
Homeless camps that are visible from Interstate 25 and in Monument Valley Park also are scaring people away from downtown, he said.
“It’s a terrible first impression for our city, and it’s dangerous,” Travins said. “There could be a massive fire. I’m kind of surprised there hasn’t already been one.”
These business people are dreading the arrival of warmer weather, when the issues downtown will get worse.
HOUSING THE HOMELESS
“I’m not going to say that homeless individuals do not commit crimes, but from my anecdotal experience, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen one of our clients standing on a street corner holding a sign,” said Stu Davis, community relations director at Springs Rescue Mission. “Our folks are trying to get back on their feet again.”
The rescue mission started out giving sandwiches to people experiencing homelessness, said Travis Williams, vice president of development. Five years ago, the organization opened a shelter for 35 men struggling with addiction and poverty and added 65 more beds in the following two years.
After a successful campaign that raised $1.4 million, the organization secured a Community Development Block Grant to fund a bigger shelter, which opened last fall.
“Today we are sheltering close to 300 individuals every night,” Williams said.
The mission’s campus on West Las Vegas Street also includes a warehouse for supportive family services where donations of clothing, food and household goods are stored and distributed, and two smaller buildings that house administrative services and program staff.
Williams noted that 12 partner agencies that serve the homeless are in the same vicinity.
“To have 12 agencies in one location is a big step for the community,” Williams said. “The idea is that individuals won’t have to travel through downtown to get to these services — a positive for business owners as well.”
The agency also operates Mission Inn, a sober living home off Nevada Avenue that accommodates 12 addiction recovery graduates. The rescue mission also is partnering with Nor’wood Development Group to build Greenway Flats, a 65-unit apartment project at 31 W. Las Vegas St.
The project, which is under construction, will provide affordable permanent supportive housing for chronically homeless people.
PUTTING PEOPLE TO WORK
Springs Rescue Mission also focuses on preparing people for work.
“We have been doing a lot on the work component for the past two years,” said Terry Anderson, Springs Rescue Mission’s chief operating officer. “There is more appetite for work than people realize. If we can provide someone with an opportunity to follow a productive path, we could help them move along the way.”
The mission employs shelter guests to help with tasks like cleaning showers, mopping floors and picking up trash around the parking lot. Those who work one shift earn lunch in the dining room and priority access at dinner. For working five shifts, they get priority assignments and rewards such as gift cards or water bottles. They can apply to be crew leaders after 20 shifts, and after 30 shifts, they receive job referrals.
Men recovering from addiction spend the first four months of a yearlong work readiness program performing custodial chores and sorting donations in the warehouse. If they do well, they can apply for another position on campus and move from 20 to 30 hours a week for the next four months.
After that, they are eligible for apprenticeship and formal job training, such as food handling in the shelter’s kitchen, courses at the American Culinary Foundation or a construction skills curriculum provided by Home Depot.
“At this level, we’re talking to employers in the community, asking them to provide an internship for one day a week,” Anderson said. “Currently, we’re in conversations with employers who have said yes.”
Mission Catering, a social enterprise that prepares food from party platters to full dinners, also employs residents of the mission’s Life Recovery Center.
“Since we started the work readiness program 18 months ago, every graduate has found housing and full-time employment,” Anderson said. “If someone at our campus is getting employed, they’re not downtown panhandling. I would definitely say it’s had an impact.”
About 40 residents of the shelter already work but cannot find housing they can afford.
RANGE OF SOLUTIONS
“There is a lot of momentum around the Springs Rescue Mission campus,” said Aimee Cox, chief executive officer of Community Health Partnership, a consortium of health care providers. “But there are clearly more people on the streets, living in camps and living in their cars than we have beds to accommodate them.”
Completion of the Springs Rescue Mission campus will help, said Beth Roalstad, executive director of Homeward Pikes Peak.
She noted that one of the rescue mission’s goals is to expand its commercial kitchen so it can serve three meals a day to the homeless. That could take some of the pressure off Marian House.
“I try to be empathetic to business owners who are seeing this problem from the outside,” Roalstad said, adding ordinances limiting where people can sit or lie and preventing panhandling while standing on narrow street medians “are measures a city can take, but there could be other solutions such as grantmaking. Companies could adopt nonprofits to help them solve these problems and partner with them rather than being on the outside.”
But some downtown business owners would like to see a more aggressive approach.
Travins indicated he supports an ordinance currently being crafted by Mayor John Suthers’ office that would enable enforcement of a no-camping ban along the creeks.
“People need to stop giving to panhandlers — another way of enabling them,” Travins said. “Service providers need to make their programs less enabling and more geared toward recovery. And we need to look at the library, which is funded by taxpayer dollars but basically used as a day shelter.”
Stamp wants the city to consider other uses for the library: an outdoor recreation center, a children’s museum, a convention center or a center for programs that assist returning members of the military.
“I’m not a vigilante. I’m compassionate, but I’m concerned about this getting worse,” Stamp said. “Somebody’s got to stand up for our rights as well.”