By Faith Miller – Colorado Springs Independent
Editor’s note: This is the second part in a three-part collaboration with the Business Journal’s sister publication, the Colorado Springs Independent, exploring in depth the region’s affordable housing challenges.
It’s impossible to know how many people have been affected by the affordable housing shortage in Colorado Springs — from homeless campers and single parents to Millennials living in their parents’ basements.
But many people making less than the area median income ($77,000 for a family of four) have felt the strain of high housing costs and short supply.
For the series on affordable housing in partnership with the Colorado Springs Business Journal, the Independent interviewed several individuals and families harmed by the affordable housing shortage in El Paso County. All feel blessed by the housing they’ve managed to find after struggling with instability. Three people survived days, months or years of homelessness. Two decided to leave the city for good, in pursuit of better wages and cheaper rents.
These are their stories.
Linda Perkins’ light blue Saturn is parked on the street, outside the century-old brick building she’s called home since January.
Before that, Perkins, now 67, called the Saturn her home for most of four years.
“It’s been an adventure. I’ll tell you that,” she says over freshly baked cinnamon rolls in her small dining area, next to shelves of knickknacks and photos of family members, most of whom, she says, have passed away.
On June 22, 2012, Perkins’ husband died following a long illness. The $30,000 life insurance payment was enough to buy a car for her daughter, Perkins says — per her husband’s wishes — and the Saturn for herself. It was also enough to pay for a place to live for about a year and a half.
After that, though, Perkins was on her own. The meager Social Security payments she received since her husband’s death weren’t anywhere close to three times the cost of rent — a criterion many landlords use to screen applicants — let alone enough for the application fee and deposit. (Median rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Colorado Springs was $729 at the beginning of 2014, according to Apartment List.)
After moving in with her daughter for a short stint, Perkins, along with her dog, Smokey, became resigned to a new life in the Saturn.
She spent the days picking up trash outside, often left by careless campers, and curled up around Smokey in the back of her car every night, dreaming of happier days. Perkins’ health issues and lack of job experience made the prospect of finding work seem insurmountable, and as she grew older without a roof over her head, her will to go on began to deteriorate.
“It’s like you feel worthless, the older you get, if you’re out here,” she says.
But after Perkins hit her head so hard one day that she blacked out and woke up days later in the hospital with a piece of her skull missing (the doctor, she says, had to remove it to repair the damage from a brain bleed), she knew something had to give.
For a while, Perkins had been using minimal services from Westside Cares, a nonprofit that provides services and case management for people experiencing homelessness. But after her hospital stay, she says the nonprofit’s CEO, Kristy Milligan, helped her find the courage to look for housing.
“Thanks to Kristy, I realized that I am somebody,” Perkins says.
Westside Cares helped Perkins find a landlord that would rent an apartment to her for $625 a month, utilities paid. The nonprofit covered Perkins’ deposit, which she couldn’t afford.
About two-thirds of her Social Security payment goes to rent, but Perkins insists she’ll find a way to repay Westside Cares “in one way or another.”
“If you try, they just all jump in with so much love,” Perkins says of the volunteers and nonprofit workers who helped her get back on her feet. “I’ve never had that before from regular people.”
For Jessica Shah and her family, ending up homeless wasn’t a surprise. It was more of an informed decision.
“We walked into it knowing that we were going into homelessness,” Shah says, sitting at a low table in a living room adorned with Buddhist artwork. She and her family have lived in this apartment in Southeast Colorado Springs since October, after spending seven months living in an SUV or motel.
When Shah discovered she was pregnant with her third child, she realized she could no longer keep her part-time job at Walmart. Her systemic lupus — an autoimmune disease that causes inflammation and fatigue — coupled with the pregnancy, would make that impossible. And her husband’s job alone wasn’t enough to afford an impending rent increase at their apartment complex.
So, in March of last year, instead of renewing their lease, Shah and her husband set about finding ways to “make homelessness fun” for their two boys, now 12 and 4.
The family would normally eat brunch at the Marian House and early dinner at Golden Corral, because storing food was impossible. When they weren’t running errands or going to doctor’s appointments, they’d play at Memorial Park or in Manitou Springs.
Every once in a while, they’d pay for a campsite, Shah says, but mostly would sleep in the SUV in places like interstate rest stops.
Shah sought help everywhere she could, but found that her inability to work disqualified her from programs that were focused on job readiness. Affordable housing waitlists were months long, and motels cost upwards of $400 a week.
Two weeks before her due date, Shah walked into Catholic Charities of Central Colorado. The nonprofit doesn’t provide housing or shelter services, but it does provide case management for families.
The case worker there helped the family find a motel for $280 a week, where they stayed from June to October, after Shah gave birth to her third son. Then they moved into Pine Creek Village apartments, under new management. When the family first moved in, Shah says, the management had just evicted everyone else on the first two floors of her building, presumably for failing to meet new income and background check standards.
Rent now costs around $860 plus utilities, but the new management is renovating Shah’s building in August.
Shah now works part-time for AmeriCorps through Catholic Charities. The organization pays her a living allowance of around $1,100 a month for helping families educate preschool-age children at home. Shah, an English major, loves her new job, but the family is moving to Florida in August to live with relatives rent-free.
“It’s not that Colorado Springs wasn’t paying well,” Shah says. “I mean, [my husband] made $15.75 an hour. That’s pretty decent pay. But for a family of five … we can’t keep up.”
Keosha LeNormand and her son fell victim to a far-reaching effect of the affordable housing shortage that disproportionately affects women: When a partner’s income suddenly disappears, rent can quickly become impossible to pay.
LeNormand moved to Colorado Springs from Alabama in August with her 6-year-old son, to be with his father.
“We’d been talking on and off for a while, and I finally made the move to come out here,” she says. “We thought we were going to be a family.”
Three days later, he kicked them out. LeNormand’s sister let them stay with her for a while, but after an argument, she forced them out too, LeNormand says — leaving the 32-year-old and her son without a place to go.
That was around Thanksgiving. They spent a night or two in LeNormand’s Jeep before getting the last two family beds at the Salvation Army Shelter and Services at RJ Montgomery, where they slept for eight uncomfortable nights.
LeNormand had experienced homelessness as a child, she says, “but my parents didn’t really care. And I told myself, I would never be in this situation. And, you know, I made the wrong decision to come out here to try to work something out. That was my fault. I take responsibility.”
Though LeNormand had been working as a janitor since she moved to Colorado Springs, the money she made wasn’t enough to afford an apartment for herself and her son, on top of child-care expenses, she says. (The median rent for a two-bedroom apartment here is upwards of $1,200, according to Apartment List.)
LeNormand felt unsafe at the shelter, and eventually got desperate enough to ask her son’s principal for help, despite her fear that she might lose custody of her child. The principal helped her get in touch with the Interfaith Hospitality Network (part of Family Promise of Colorado Springs), a program that connects congregations who take turns providing shelter for homeless families.
LeNormand and her son rotated from church to church for a few weeks, before being approved for transitional housing through another nonprofit, Partners in Housing. They’ve stayed in a studio apartment with a shared kitchen since the end of January, paying 25 percent of LeNormand’s income for rent. LeNormand’s also taking night classes toward a business degree.
Her new job at CaptionCall, a company that captions phone conversations for people with hearing disabilities, pays $11.60 an hour. While LeNormand likes the job, which provides her with flexible hours so she doesn’t have to pay for child care, she’s leaving soon for a better-paying job in Missouri, where she’s already found a two-bedroom apartment in a safe neighborhood for $600 a month.
“The housing market out here really is not a good deal for people,” she says. “It’s either roof over your head or are you going to eat. Which one are you going to choose?”
Rick Parker and his preteen twin daughters had lived in an apartment owned by Greccio Housing, a local nonprofit that provides low-income housing, for upwards of eight years — until one day in 2016, when he learned they would no longer qualify, thanks to an income increase he received after joining the Laborers’ International Union of North America.
Parker, now 62, had hoped he could find a house the family could afford. But though his income as a union construction worker — around $35,000 a year — was too high to continue to qualify for lower rent, it wasn’t enough to make payments on a home, nor afford the $900 or so a month (plus utilities) that a market-rent apartment would cost through Greccio.
If not for Pikes Peak Habitat for Humanity, “I probably would have moved to Penrose or Cañon City,” Parker says.
But Greccio suggested Parker contact Habitat, which provides homes for families with a demonstrated need, who can also afford a reasonable mortgage payment and invest 200 hours of “sweat equity” in helping build affordable homes. Parker, an Army veteran who was stationed at Fort Carson in the ’70s, was quickly accepted for Habitat’s Veteran Homeownership Program in Fountain. And in November of 2018, the house was ready for move-in.
On a snowy Saturday in early March, Parker’s daughters were painting their bedroom a pretty light gray. Or purple, depending on whom you ask (there was some lively debate between Parker and the girls over the exact shade).
The girls’ mother lives in Calhan, but Parker has had custody of the twins since they were toddlers, he says. Nowadays, it’s impossible for many single parents to find an affordable place to live in Colorado Springs, Parker says, especially those with younger children who have to pay for day care.
And although it’s easier to find work in the construction industry than it was a few years ago, Parker argues that despite the rising cost of construction labor — often cited as one factor contributing to the affordable housing shortage — the money isn’t trickling down to the laborers themselves.
“The people doing the work are not getting the money,” he says. “It’s the people that own the companies.”
But Parker, who’s been in the industry for decades, still has a fondness for his work, as evidenced by his desire to keep volunteering with Habitat.
“I’ve been done with my hours a long time ago. Going to go out and help them build, though. It’s kind of fun.”