City push brings beds (and hope) to the homeless

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2019 Colorado Springs Homelessness Initiative Colorado Springs

A dedicated, “boots-on-the-ground” one-year push to improve the lives of the city’s homeless population is already bearing fruit, with 370 low-barrier shelter beds added at Springs Rescue Mission and the Salvation Army.

The city of Colorado Springs’ homelessness response action plan — now known as the 2019 Colorado Springs Homelessness Initiative — identified low-barrier shelter beds as its No. 1 priority, and city council approved a special appropriation of $500,000 to help fund them.

That doubled the community’s low-barrier shelter bed numbers, with the 370 new beds divided between Springs Rescue Mission and the Salvation Army.

“We need to ensure that no one in our community is forced to sleep outside,” said Andrew Phelps, homelessness prevention and response coordinator for the city. “No one in our community should die of exposure over the winter.”

2019 Homeless Initiative“It’s made a big difference for us,” Springs Rescue Mission Chief Development Officer Travis Williams said of the 150 beds the shelter added Dec. 1. “For example, in October when we had some of those first cold snaps, we actually had to look people in the eye and turn them away. We turned away around 30 people during that first cold snap.

“Since having the extra shelter beds, we’ve been able to — at a high point in December — take on an additional 71 people. We haven’t had to turn anybody away since having the additional shelter beds.”

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Phelps said the initiative “does not set out to end homelessness in our community.

“We already have a Continuum of Care that has a 10-year strategic plan and we have the Community Development Division at the city that has an action plan,” he said. “[The 2019 Colorado Springs Homelessness Initiative] really aims to be a boots-on-the-ground one-year action plan for seeing what we can do strategically to improve homelessness-related issues in our community in the next year.”

The HelpCOS Campaign plays a key role in the 2019 Colorado Springs Homelessness Initiative by educating the public on effective ways to give and raising awareness about “all the amazing nonprofits we have in our community,” Phelps said.

Launched May 2018 by the city of Colorado Springs in partnership with Pikes Peak United Way, the HelpCOS Campaign recognized increasing frustration at panhandlers on the streets, and doubts over whether well-meant handouts actually help.

“[It] started with signs that people have probably seen around town that say, ‘Handouts Don’t Help,’” Phelps said. “And those signs aim to encourage people to give more effectively by donating directly to local service providers, through a text-to-give campaign.”

By texting HelpCOS to 667873, people can donate in about the same time it takes to hand a bill through a car window — with the knowledge that money goes toward funding low-barrier shelter beds in the Springs at the Salvation Army and Springs Rescue Mission.

“But the HelpCOS Campaign is really about something much larger than that,” Phelps said. “We have signs, we have billboards, but more importantly we have a website — HelpCOS.org — that really aims to be a central hub for all things homelessness in our community.”

The HelpCOS.org website is designed to educate the public on effective ways to give, whether through money, items in kind or volunteering, and also lists services available for those in need.

Introducing the 2019 Colorado Springs Homelessness Initiative, the HelpCOS.org website explains: “Although not a homeless service provider, the City of Colorado Springs remains committed to championing strategies that prevent and reduce homelessness in our community by assessing gaps across landscapes, planning, building awareness, convening stakeholder groups, identifying public-private partnerships and leveraging resources.”

The final draft of the 2019 Colorado Springs Homelessness Initiative will be released this week. Beyond adding shelter beds, it aims to:

• Continue educating the public via the HelpCOS Campaign

• Implement a Homeless Outreach Court

• Establish a Veteran Mitigation Fund to incentivize landlords to house homeless veterans

• Develop a comprehensive affordable housing plan

• Support funding for a homeless work program with an area nonprofit

• Add Neighborhood Services staff to aid in cleaning up illegal camps (contingent on budget approval)

• Develop a concept for a “HelpCOS Ambassador Team” for Downtown and Old Colorado City areas

• Collaborate with local service providers to add shelter options for homeless families (Colorado Springs has few options that allow families to stay together)

• Increase Colorado Springs Police Department response to issues involving homelessness

The number of homeless people in Colorado Springs has increased along with the population, according to the city, with the 2018 Point in Time count showing there were at least 1,551 homeless people in El Paso County on the night of Jan. 28, 2018, including people in shelters and transitional housing, and those unsheltered. (The unsheltered count was 513.)

Phelps said completing the goal of doubling low-barrier shelter bed capacity is “a huge success for our city … something we should be very proud of.”

But, he added, there’s still work to be done to connect homeless people with the beds available.

“There are still a lot of folks who are choosing to camp outside,” Phelps said. “And we’re really trying to educate everyone in the community that it’s more safe to spend the night in a shelter than it is to camp illegally.”

Why do some choose not to take the beds?

“Personally I think that what the large shelter bed vacancies show us is that there is a culture of people in our community that are choosing to camp — that they don’t trust the homeless service providers or they just don’t want to go there,” Phelps said.

Small scale surveys of the homeless community show lack of storage is the top reason many stay away from shelters, he added.

“Because of that we are actively working with the two main shelter providers, Springs Rescue Mission and Salvation Army, to help them expand their storage facilities,” Phelps said. “I know that Springs Rescue Mission is planning on adding 450 lockers to their campus in the next year. I think that’s key to getting people into the shelter beds — but more importantly, into the services that are provided at the shelters, like mental health treatment, substance abuse treatment, and even employment services.”

Williams said Springs Rescue Mission “continually attempts to remove as many barriers as we possibly can to make it as warm and welcoming and inviting for folks to seek shelter.

“So some of those barriers that have been there in the past are, ‘Well, I’ve got a pet. I can’t bring a pet,’” he said. “And we have, since opening our shelters in 2016, taken pets consistently. In fact, in the month of December we sheltered over 100 pets with us.

“Then sobriety has been an issue for some people. They say ‘Well, they have rules. I can’t come in because I’ve got a substance in my system.’ And we have said, ‘No, come as you are. And as long as you’re not hurting yourself or others there is a place for you at Springs Rescue Mission.’”

Williams said Springs Rescue Mission had seen increased demand for beds after police and city workers cleared out the illegal campground southeast of downtown in December.

“We had over 159 first-time guests in December, and we do know that some folks did come from those camps,” he said. “… That surprised us, I will say that, to have that many first-time guests. To put it in perspective, we’ll see about 2,000 unique individuals find shelter per year.”

Williams said Springs Rescue Mission offers not only beds, hot meals and sanitary conditions, but 26 partner agencies on the campus to help with mental and physical health, pets, housing and employment.

“We want to help meet people where they’re at and provide as many resources as they need,” he said. “We know that being in isolation and without all the right services, folks will not be able to find a better pathway. [We hope] nobody finds camping as a permanent solution. We would love to see people dream bigger and live a life filled with as much dignity and hope as possible.”