Street posts across downtown Colorado Springs bear a frank message: “Handouts don’t help.”
The sentiment is the crux of the HelpCOS campaign, launched in May 2018 by the city of Colorado Springs in partnership with Pikes Peak United Way as part of an ongoing effort to redirect well-intentioned people toward more effective means of helping the city’s sizable homeless population.
A main objective of that initiative is encouraging would-be donors to give directly to the city’s myriad nonprofit organizations — a sector often on the frontlines of the fight against homelessness, said Catherine Duarte, a senior analyst in the city of Colorado Springs’ community development division.
The importance of direct monetary donations can not be overstated when it comes to combatting homelessness, Duarte said.
“Huge,” she said simply, when asked about the role of monetary donations in providing services for the city’s homeless population. “We [the city’s community development division] are not a service provider. We completely rely on nonprofits to carry out a lot of these programs.”
The division expects about $4.88 million this year from two sources — $4.5 million from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and $300,000 from the Program Income Community Development Block Grant, Duarte said. The division then spends that money on priorities identified by residents.
Housing is the main priority this funding cycle, with four subsidized multi-family housing projects and 89 rehabilitation and acquisition endeavors — which help rehabilitate apartments and houses in disrepair and fund property acquisition for affordable housing — on deck this year.
Also included are 35 rental assistance endeavors, which help vulnerable families exiting homelessness or at risk of losing their home, and 12 homeownership projects, during which the division works with local land trusts to help low-income families with down payment funds for a new home.
Community development block grants account for more than half (59 percent) of the division’s funding, Duarte said. Only 5 percent — about $250,000 this year, she said — comes from HUD’s Emergency Solutions Grant program, which helps operate emergency shelters and provide essential services for the people in them, as well as rapidly re-housing homeless individuals and families.
About 7 percent of that $250,000 has to go toward administrative costs, Duarte said, meaning that money “goes very quickly.”
DONATIONS ARE KEY
As the primary combatants in the fight against homelessness, the work of most nonprofits “really wouldn’t be possible if individuals didn’t get out their wallets and write a check to help support the work,” said Travis Williams, chief development officer for Springs Rescue Mission.
“Nonprofits are funded through different means — some through government grants, some through foundation grants and some primarily through community members,” Williams said. “We are primarily funded through community members, so the majority of the work that is done here is actually through thousands of caring individuals taking steps to ensure that folks who are struggling with poverty and homelessness have the resources they need to move forward.”
According to its website, SRM provides a wide range of programs intended to serve the 27,000 households living beneath the poverty line in the Pikes Peak Region, including shelters, addiction rehabilitation and recovery programs, and case management services.
About 20 percent of SRM’s funds go toward administrative expenses such as salaries and other operational costs, with the other 80 percent going directly to clients, Williams said.
“That could be through programming or resources, and it’s really geared towards continuing to work to provide the outcomes of housing, health and work,” he said.
About 92 to 95 percent of SRM’s funding any given year will come through “just the generosity of kindhearted donors in Colorado Springs and El Paso County,” Williams said.
“It’s pretty amazing,” he said. “Not all charities work this way. Some are government funded.”
Community support is paramount when dealing with multifaceted challenges like homelessness, Williams said.
“The responsibility just isn’t on the government sector or the private sector. It really rests in the hearts of individuals,” Williams said. “[Community donations] have given us great flexibility to really meet the needs of the community.”
Without those donations, “I truly believe we would not be meeting the need to the degree that we are today,” Williams said.
“There’s just not enough government grants, or funding really, to meet the needs — particularly operationally — to the level that we’ve been able to do that,” Williams said. “We’re trying to create an environment where our staff wants to stay and [also] be able to create an environment where we’re able to react to community needs, because they’re not stagnant.
“Some of those programs are fairly stagnant, and when something arises outside those needs, you’re not in a position of flexibility to be able to meet those needs,” he added.
‘SIGNIFICANT COST SAVINGS’
Even for nonprofits that exist mostly on government funding, like the Community Health Partnership, alleviating homelessness is not cheap, said Jennifer Mariano, director of homeless programs.
CHP serves as the lead agency for the Pikes Peak Continuum of Care, which is made up of service providers, advocates, local government officials and residents who work to eliminate homelessness in El Paso County. Members track and manage homelessness in the Pikes Peak region, as well as the available services, offering both prevention strategies and assistance programs to assist those at-risk of or experiencing homelessness, according to its website.
Permanent supportive housing — an intervention that combines affordable housing assistance with voluntary support services to address the needs of chronically homeless people — is often the largest cost burden for organizations helping people exit homelessness, Mariano said.
Permanent supportive housing is twofold, Mariano said. First, and most critical, is finding the client a place to stay. The second piece is support services designed to build independent living and tenancy skills and connect people with community-based health care, treatment and employment services, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
All in all, the process can sometimes cost up to $15,000 a client, Mariano said. Still, she was quick to add that figure is roughly a quarter of the amount it costs for a chronically homeless individual to continue living on the street.
“For someone living on the street, it would be closer to $60,000 when you factor in police, fire [services],” Mariano said. “Even though [permanent supportive housing] is expensive, it’s still a significant cost savings.”
FUTURE OF THE FIGHT
The nonprofits’ fight to end homelessness is far from over, Williams said, and the issue remains highly visible in the community.
“I do think that Colorado Springs has some challenges with not just homelessness, but vagrancy challenges. I think it’s easy to blanket people with the term ‘homeless,’ and we will use that term to blanket a population, which really doesn’t do any justice for anyone,” Williams said. “We can take somebody who makes a bad decision out on a trail somewhere, and that can negate the mission.”
Still, Williams doesn’t believe that Colorado Springs is any different than many other similar-sized cities when it comes to the issues surrounding the homeless population. What does set Colorado Springs apart, he said, is that the community actually has a possibility of getting ahead of those issues.
“Yes, there are still challenges and gaps, but to see how the community has been working together — [we have] really been investing and coming up with wise solutions to address the issues,” Williams said. “Yes, there are challenges, but some of the latest studies show that per capita, [the Springs’ homeless population] is lower than cities like Pueblo and Denver.” CSBJ