Andrew Phelps is the Homelessness Prevention and Response Coordinator for the city of Colorado Springs, and has been for nearly four years.
He earned his undergraduate degree in psychology from the Missouri State University in Springfield. “It’s hard to pinpoint the exact reason why or how I got in this field, but one of the things I look back on is the summer after my freshman year of college,” said Phelps. “I moved to Los Angeles, California and lived with a missionary near Skid Row doing street outreach for people experiencing homelessness there.
“What I witnessed in Skid Row that summer was the first time I really saw what abject poverty actually looked like — and it really opened my eyes to the plight of people experiencing homelessness in our country. That was the seed planted while in college, but I’ve kind of taken a winding path since then.”
After earning his bachelor’s degree, Phelps worked overnight shifts for a juvenile detention center. “Basically, I’d ensure that the kids were safe in their rooms, but it was a very depressing job,” he said. “I began looking for how far away I could get from Springfield.”
Spinning a globe, Phelps stopped on China. He started looking for job opportunities online, got some offers, and eventually moved to the other side of the world to teach English in Sichuan province, in China’s southwest.
There, he bought a motorcycle on the side of the road. “It changed my life … one the best decisions I’ve ever made,” he said. “I grew up in a black-and-white thinking household, with a small sense of the world. Moving to China really expanded my horizons … bigger than Missouri.”
After nearly two years in China, Phelps returned to Springfield, working in street outreach to people experiencing homelessness.
“Then I turned 30, and saw all my friends getting married and having kids,” he said, “and I asked myself, ‘Why am I still in Springfield?’ I have an aunt and uncle here in Colorado Springs that I’ve always been very close with. So, at 30, I sold most of what I owned, packed up my car, and moved to Colorado Springs.”
Phelps found an apartment and got a job with AspenPointe, a mental health organization in Colorado Springs, where he did similar outreach work with those experiencing homelessness.
At AspenPointe, Phelp’s work was funded through a grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. He hit the streets building relationships to match people with services.
“That can be a myriad of things: get them connected to mental health treatment, substance-abuse treatment …” he said. “The primary goal is to get them into housing. The best way to end homelessness is by housing people.”
While working at AspenPointe, Phelps earned his master’s in social work, from Newman University in Wichita, Kansas, which has a site in Colorado Springs.
“I focused on homelessness issues,” Phelps said. “While I was getting my master’s, I interned for the city [of Colorado Springs].”
He then worked as a junior research scientist for New York University’s Family Translational Research Group, helping to lead a research study at Fort Carson — one of 10 Army bases being studied.
“Our research was a multi-million dollar grant with the U.S. Army to determine the best model for substantiating allegations of family maltreatment,” he said.
Then a job opened up at the city — a new position called Homelessness Prevention and Response Coordinator.
Phelps interviewed twice, and has been there ever since. He talked with the Business Journal about the city’s efforts to help people experiencing homelessness.
Tell us about Skid Row.
I was living with, and working with, a missionary and her husband. She had other volunteers that came out for that summer to work. I stayed in a house with a lot of ex-convicts coming out of prison to be rehabilitated; I lived with large, terrifying men, but actually grew to really love the guys. They were great people … good guys trying to turn their lives around. I was sleeping near the corner of Fourth and Main [streets] near Skid Row.
How did you get into street outreach for those experiencing homelessness?
That work I did in Skid Row is something I look back on as changing the trajectory of my life, but … even more than that, when I look back on my childhood, I grew up in a broken family. My biological father had severe substance abuse issues. Growing up around that, seeing the unfortunate results of what substance abuse does to a family, planted some empathy inside of me for those that are struggling. I witnessed the slow suicide of my father — he ended up passing away from drinking — from alcohol abuse. I’m sure witnessing that slow suicide is partly why I do what I do.
I’m the youngest of five. I have two older brothers, an older stepbrother, and an older stepsister. My mom divorced when I was around 5 years old and remarried around when I was 7 years old. I was raised by my stepfather and my mom, and got to see my dad on the weekends too. I kept a relationship with him throughout until he unfortunately passed away about six years ago — liver failure, kidney failure, it was cascading organ failure.
Tell us about interning with the city of Colorado Springs.
I interned for a woman at the city named Amy Cox. She has since moved to San Diego, but was considered to be the “homelessness person” for Colorado Springs. My current position, Homelessness [Prevention and] Response Coordinator, is new — I’m the first one to hold it. Working for Amy Cox definitely opened a door for me to have this awesome experience of doing what I do with the city — and I’m very thankful for that.
What does your job entail?
My job is pretty far reaching. Part of what I do is answer complaints that come to the city about homelessness — so that means that if somebody complains to city council or the mayor’s office, all of those complaints get funneled to me. I spend a lot of time informing the public on homelessness issues, fielding complaints and [helping] people understand all the work we are doing. I’m a liaison between the community and city leadership on homelessness issues. I’m the person communicating with the mayor and council members around what’s going on with homelessness in our city, and what we can do to improve the situation.
My favorite part of my job is leading the city’s strategy on homelessness. One of the big things that I’ve done is develop and implement what is called the 2019 Homelessness Initiative … our city’s plan for homelessness. I am super proud of the initiative — it has 10 goals. You can find that initiative on my website with the city: helpcos.org You can learn about all the things that I, and the city of Colorado Springs, are doing to improve homelessness-related issues.
Tell us more about the Homelessness Initiative.
Some of the things I’m most proud of … I worked hard with city employees for funding additional low-barrier shelter beds. We were able to secure $500,000 a year through city council, and we added over 250 shelter beds in our community. Before I [was hired by the city] we did not have enough shelter beds. Every winter, shelters were full and people were forced to try to survive … and many died of exposure. The city, every year, tried to implement a winter weather shelter, but it was difficult and messy. Now, because we’ve added all the shelter beds, we can say that we have enough beds in our community. I’m proud of that … lives are being saved — people are not forced to sleep outside.
Another part of the initiative is the homeless work program called WorkCOS. Now, the city is hiring people experiencing homelessness to do clean-up work in our city — and they’re jobs that start at $15 an hour, and provide a real foot in the door for full-time city employment. The first year was 2020, and we saw a lot of success. Seven people participated and two have since graduated and are now full-time city employees … no longer homeless. The Mayor and City Council have agreed to fund an additional team … doubling the size of the program. We’re in the process right now of hiring more people through Springs Rescue Mission, Salvation Army and Catholic Charities. I’m super proud, because for some people experiencing homelessness, employment is the key for them getting out of the defeating cycle.
Another project that I developed through the Homelessness Initiative is called the Pikes Peak Veteran Housing Fund. I did a fundraiser with the Mayor last year, and raised $100,000 in one day. So, we have this fund that exists to help homeless veterans get into housing, and it’s getting accessed every week. It’s so satisfying to see, every week, another homeless veteran getting out of homelessness. It’s a good feeling when you’re able to look back on an idea … and see it positively impacting lives. My hope is that I help to decrease suffering … that’s what I feel driven by, and some of these programs make me feel like I am having a positive impact.
Tell us about your pastimes.
Well, my mom is a retired artist who worked for Hallmark — like Hallmark cards — which is why I grew up in Kansas City. ... She worked there for almost 25 years. I definitely got an artistic gene from Mom. I’ve always been interested in art … still, I make pottery; I have a studio at home with both a wheel and kiln. ... I really enjoy working in the yard and growing vegetables — I have a nice flower garden I’m proud of.