August 29, 2018 News » Cover Story

Concrete Couch wants to allow a temporary homeless camp at its new location. But is it a pipe dream? 

Concrete Conscience

click to enlarge Steve Wood, the founder and director of Concrete Couch, wants the nonprofit’s vast new property to be a space for learning and creativity. - FAITH MILLER
  • Faith Miller
  • Steve Wood, the founder and director of Concrete Couch, wants the nonprofit’s vast new property to be a space for learning and creativity.
Tucked away between train tracks and Shooks Run Trail, just south of downtown, smoke rises from a grill and laughter rings out among a group of smiling people in baggy clothes and worn sneakers.

It’s early evening, and shafts of light peek out from behind clouds, the threat of summer rain gone, for now. Steve Wood leaves the barbecue and traipses down a dirt trail. Sporting a fedora over gray-brown curls and a worn T-shirt emblazoned with the words “Concrete Couch,” he scans the wooded area to his right with piercing blue eyes. There, on a hill above a brightly painted mural, dozens of tents are strewn among the trees.

He greets the campers he sees peering out of tents or walking bikes along the path by the creek, inviting them to stop by the grill for a burger. Some he knows by name; others he is meeting for the first time. “A lot of people have come and gone,” he explains.

Wood and his team have been walking this 5-acre piece of land for months, hosting weekly barbecues and getting to know the people who live on the site of Concrete Couch’s future home. The scrappy, art-focused nonprofit plans to move from its unassuming headquarters in a house behind the Independent, across from the giant tile-mosaic pumpkin Steve and co. built a couple years ago, to this comparatively massive piece of land on the site of — get this — a former concrete batch plant.

(The old location is owned by Indy owner John Weiss and was rented to the nonprofit for years for close to nothing.)

At its new location, Concrete Couch will find it easier to do what it’s known for: building art and civic improvement projects like mosaics, murals and gardens, and teaching sustainability.

But unlike many a developer, Concrete Couch doesn’t plan to kick the campers out, fence off the property, and start pouring cement as soon as they close the deal, which will likely be in January.

Instead, founder and director Wood wants to let the campers stay for about a year after Concrete Couch buys the property — enough time, he hopes, for most to get back on their feet. In the meantime, his plan is to get the campers to comply with some basic rules, such as staying sober and picking up trash.
It sounds simple enough. But in a city whose administration has historically opposed sanctioned camping for the homeless, the idea of a small nonprofit with scant experience in homeless care taking on such a project is daring, to say the least.

And Wood isn’t afraid to admit that.

“It’s not gonna work,” he says, “but we’re gonna try.”

The first, and biggest, obstacle for Concrete Couch is land-use requirements.

The Legacy Institute — a Colorado Springs nonprofit focused on education and community development — which owns the property, has offered to sell it to Concrete Couch for $100,000. All involved agree that’s a great deal, though Wood says that amounts to about a year’s budget for his nonprofit. Concrete Couch will find out whether a federal grant request moves forward in a few weeks — if so, it’ll wait until that money comes through and close on the property in January. Otherwise, they already have donated funds that will allow them to close in September.

Then come the development hurdles.

Currently, says city Urban Planning Manager Ryan Tefertiller, the eastern third of the property is zoned M-2, for heavy industrial use. That’s where Concrete Couch eventually wants to start building its new space, which would include an office, playground, a caretaker’s residence, five bathrooms and two workshops. (Wood hopes to have classes for kids and host field trips.) The western two-thirds are part of a planned unit development (PUD) district established for residential purposes.

In order to build its campus, Concrete Couch will have to submit a zone change request to create an overall PUD zone that is specific to the new plans, Tefertiller says. And while he calls that a “fairly significant process” that would take months to allow for internal review, public hearings and City Council approval, he adds that initial discussions with the planning and zoning department would lead him to think that eventual approvals shouldn’t be a problem.

The real issue, in the meantime: Neither of the current zoning designations allow camping, Tefertiller says, and the city could shut down an organized community. Not only that, but the nonprofit could also jeopardize its construction plans by allowing campers to stay.
“I would think that the Planning Commission and/or City Council would be interested in Concrete Couch’s near term plans for abating the illegal camping on the property,” Tefertiller writes in an email. “If the decision makers aren’t satisfied that they have a good plan and that the camping on the property is causing harm to surrounding properties, they could choose to deny, delay, or add restrictive conditions to the proposed zone change.

“Please understand that I’m just describing options or possible scenarios,” he adds. “I have no idea if City Council would take these measure[s] or not.”

Concrete Couch has done its homework: The nonprofit has spoken to a wide array of movers and shakers in the homeless outreach community in Colorado Springs. It’s contemplated possible solutions to the camping problem that even included building a tiny home community on the property. (That idea, Wood acknowledges, is not currently in reach.)

Beth Roalstad, executive director of nonprofit Homeward Pikes Peak, is among those who spoke with Wood. She says she thinks what Concrete Couch is doing to help campers on the property is admirable, but “not for the faint of heart.” And has words of caution.

“I would never want to jeopardize long-term goals to help a handful of individuals,” Roalstad says. “Even though I’m ... a homeless service provider, you can’t put everything at stake just to help a couple of people.”
click to enlarge Theresa Lamas has lived outdoors since March. - FAITH MILLER
  • Faith Miller
  • Theresa Lamas has lived outdoors since March.
Theresa Lamas, known to fellow campers as “Mama Theresa” for her nurturing personality, is in good spirits on one afternoon in late July. Her husband, Shaun, recently got a job washing linens just a bike ride from the camp. The couple plan to rent an apartment soon and hope to regain custody of their two daughters. Shaun’s making plans for Theresa’s 44th birthday, after he gets his first paycheck.

The couple have lived on Concrete Couch’s future property since the end of March. Before that, they were at Springs Rescue Mission for about a year, which Lamas recounts with disgust.

“There’s a reason why a lot of [campers] are here, and not in certain shelters and stuff. Too much enabling,” she says. “It should be, if you ask me, zero tolerance [for drugs and alcohol].”

Lamas, who’s quick to help the camp’s younger female inhabitants — usually with food and blankets, but she says she also helped one girl get sober — wants to come back and visit after the couple moves. “We call each other family.”

Her voice breaks when she expresses gratitude for what Concrete Couch is also doing to help, by cleaning up the camps, getting a Dumpster donated, and helping to connect people with resources.

“I think it’s really awesome what they’re doing,” she says. “Where else can you stay for free for a little bit, and why not do that, help others help themselves?”

Lamas and her husband are two of the campers with whom Wood and Concrete Couch staff have been able to connect well, and consider leaders in getting other people on board to contribute to cleanup and general order. There’s also Mike, Carrie and Calvin, who Wood says are close to getting some income and dream of having a place to live by winter; Tyrone, a veteran who wants to get an apartment with his girlfriend once she leaves jail, Wood says; and Roby, who says he quit his job to live outside but hopes to get back to regular life someday. But there’s also people who aren’t as cooperative, campers who might cause trouble for the others who are on board with Concrete Couch’s rules. Like the people who shoved clothes in the donated porta-potties, which then had to be moved.

“A lot of people don’t understand what these guys are trying to do, and by acting stupid and all that, they’re just bringing bad publicity here,” Shaun Lamas says.

Wood is jovial and optimistic among the campers, but alone, he isn’t so sure.

“I think we’re going to spend hundreds and hundreds of hours trying this experiment, and we’re probably going to fail,” he says. “But the alternative, which everyone in the development community says, is just like, ‘Hey, you’re developing, kick everyone off, round them up.’ So we’re trying an experiment, and it’s unclear whether it’s going to be successful or not, or if there’s varying degrees of success that could be a form of success.”
click to enlarge Staff and volunteers from Concrete Couch host a barbecue with homeless campers on the nonprofit’s future property. - FAITH MILLER
  • Faith Miller
  • Staff and volunteers from Concrete Couch host a barbecue with homeless campers on the nonprofit’s future property.
Andy Phelps, the city’s homeless prevention and response coordinator, is likewise hesitant. He’s quick to reiterate the city administration’s stance on legal encampments: It “does not support legal encampments in our community.”

“We don’t think it’s a good use of money or time,” Phelps says. “We believe that it’s a better use of money and time to provide adequate low-barrier shelter bed capacity in our community.”

At the same time, Phelps says, the city is not “shooting down the idea at face value.”

“If [Concrete Couch is] proposing something that’s not allowed,” he says, “they need to go through the same process as everyone else to get that allowed.”

Phelps stresses that the city’s 300 new low-barrier beds, which should be in place by winter, will provide a place for many of the campers to go.

But homelessness is only growing worse in Colorado Springs. January’s annual Point-in-Time count found that the unsheltered homeless population was up 12.2 percent from 2017, with 513 on the street. Springs Rescue Mission currently has 300 low-barrier beds. All of those were full on the night of the count.

Despite the mayor’s objections, sanctioned homeless camping experiments have been tried before in the Colorado Springs area. One famous example came when Fred Martin, the president of Rocky Top Resources in unincorporated El Paso County, tried allowing homeless people to stay on the company’s property and live in a kind of self-governed community. For a time, it seemed to be working, despite safety concerns that included a mulch fire. But county zoning complications forced Martin to make the campers leave this spring.

“The Rocky Top experiment was a good one,” says City Council President Richard Skorman, who was involved in meetings about the possibility of allowing Martin to reinstate sanctioned camping. “They all had pull-out garbage cans by their tents and people were keeping other residents safe. It was just really a good first experiment and the county hasn’t allowed them to come back.”

Skorman hopes Concrete Couch can look to Martin’s example. He’s willing to help them explore possibilities.

“I think if we can have small encampments that are well-managed where you have groups like a Concrete Couch to adopt them, and you can make sure that the bad actors aren’t participants,” Skorman says, “that would be what I would hope we could do in the future.”

Councilor Jill Gaebler, who’s also been open to the idea of sanctioned camping, says she might also be supportive, but thinks Concrete Couch would probably need more time to sort out the kinks.

“You’d have to have some folks who were committed at Concrete Couch or others who could really support that and guide that process, because it’s not going to happen naturally,” Gaebler says.
Wood fears that some opposition to his idea is born of misunderstanding. He doesn’t want to create any sort of permanent community for campers, but instead allow those who are willing to contribute to stay for a year until Concrete Couch is ready to start building on the property. He hopes that by then, most will have found housing.

Someday, he hopes students can come to the site on field trips, using the varied terrain to embark on creative projects. Perhaps an engineering class could build a bridge over the ravine, he says. And the Legacy Loop, which runs through the property, will invite runners and cyclists.

In the meantime, he hopes to help people like Theresa and Shaun get back on their feet. On a second visit to their camp in mid-August, Theresa said Shaun had to quit his job after missing work on a Friday. “It’s back to square one,” she said.

But they’re not giving up. And neither is Wood, who met with the Legacy Institute’s CEO, Zach McComsey the same day and assured him that Concrete Couch was all in on the deal. (McComsey had worried Wood was unsure.)

Wood says he agreed with McComsey’s request to stop holding barbecues and be less conspicuous in helping the homeless campers.

If Concrete Couch succeeds in getting the zone changes and fulfilling its vision, it wouldn’t be the first time the nonprofit has persevered, and eventually accomplished, something that once seemed impossible. It’s built playgrounds, mosaics and even a giant pumpkin with kids and determined volunteers. The mural that now graces the Penrose Library parking lot took 21 years of talks with library directors before it was approved.

Concrete Couch’s move “could make or break the org,” Wood says. “But everybody’s kind of up for it.

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