helpCOS homelessness

Colorado Springs’ newly finalized “boots-on-the-ground” one-year push to help the homeless will boost street outreach, expand aid to homeless families and add staff to clean up illegal camps.

An outreach court, homeless work program and veteran incentive fund are also key elements of the 2019 Colorado Springs Homelessness Initiative.

The initiative — which until today was in draft form — is already bearing fruit, with 370 low-barrier shelter beds added at Springs Rescue Mission and the Salvation Army.

The city of Colorado Springs identified low-barrier shelter beds as the initiative’s No. 1 priority, and city council approved a special appropriation of $500,000 to help fund them.

“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.”

Travis Williams, Springs Rescue Mission’s chief development officer, said he’s already seen a difference thanks to the 150 beds the shelter added Dec. 1.

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“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,” he said. “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.”

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.”

A homeless camp under the bridge at Cheyenne Creek.

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.

Beyond adding shelter beds, the 2019 Colorado Springs Homelessness Initiative aims to:

  • Continue educating the public via the HelpCOS Campaign
  • Increase street outreach
  • Add shelter options for homeless families (Colorado Springs has few options that allow families to stay together)
  • Implement a Homeless Outreach Court
  • Develop a homeless work program to help people leave life on the streets
  • Establish a Veteran Mitigation Fund to incentivize landlords to house homeless veterans
  • Develop a comprehensive attainable housing plan
  • Support funding for a homeless work program with an area nonprofit
  • Add Neighborhood Services staff to aid in cleaning up illegal camps
  • Colorado Springs Police Department will train more officers to assist the Homeless Outreach Team and boost hours dedicated to homelessness response
  • Increase Colorado Springs Police Department response to issues involving homelessness

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.”

2019 Colorado Springs Homelessness Initiative Colorado SpringsSmall-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.”

The final plan can be seen at https://coloradosprings.gov/sites/default/files/inline-images/homelessness_initiative_20190212_0.pdf.

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