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Homeless population outpaces Springs Rescue Mission's expansion 

Endless need

click to enlarge CEO Larry Yonker in SRM's laundry room. - J. ADRIAN STANLEY
  • J. Adrian Stanley
  • CEO Larry Yonker in SRM's laundry room.

Springs Rescue Mission, the city's foremost homeless shelter and service provider, just finished the first phase of a two-part expansion, a task that included raising $7 million in donations to build: a low-barrier, 168-bed, 11,000-square-foot men's shelter; a courtyard; and a day center with room for 100 people, 16 showers, six sets of washers and dryers, a multi-purpose classroom, and office space for partner nonprofits and the Department of Human Services. A women's shelter was also added, after the main shelter proved too small to fit everyone. The men's shelter opened late last year, the day center in April, and the offices and classroom were just recently completed.

In an ordinary world, it would be a cause for relief and celebration.

But even as SRM, located on West Las Vegas Street, was hustling to meet demand, President and CEO Larry Yonker says the city's homeless population was growing, and other service providers were eliminating shelter beds. So while SRM's expansion certainly improves the plight of the city's chronically homeless people, it's not a panacea. In fact, the men's shelter has been running over capacity (using mats) nightly, even in summer, and packing in as many as 240 people on cold nights. SRM's women's shelter, which has 34 beds, has hosted as many as 75. In August, on average, SRM sheltered 264 people each night, or 62 more than they have beds for.

Yonker suspects that even at its busiest times, SRM is only housing half the city's chronic homeless population. Of those still on the streets, he'd guess that half wouldn't ever stay in a shelter, but the other half would seek one out if it were available. And come winter, those folks will need someplace to stay.

"We're evaluating right now, working with the city of Colorado Springs and others to determine how do we shelter, safely emergency shelter ... We're looking for answers to get people out of the cold," he says.

Consider: The 2017 headcount of homeless people in the community, done as a requirement of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, found that the city's chronic homeless population had grown from 291 to 374 between 2015 and 2017, while its overall homeless figure (including those in rehousing programs) had shot up from 1,854 to 2,094. The count is generally considered to be lower than the actual figure.

Back in spring 2016, SRM answered the city's call to help the homeless population, accepting $2.5 million from the city's Community Development Block Grant funds to get started on fundraising for a $15 million campus expansion. At the time, the Salvation Army had just announced the permanent closure of its emergency 170-bed winter shelter, which had run for two years. SRM, which at the time had only 63 shelter beds, launched an ambitious drive to open its expanded shelter before temperatures dropped.

While other nonprofits provide shelter beds, there aren't nearly enough to go around, and with the Salvation Army's emergency shelter closed, SRM was the only "low-barrier" shelter, meaning people can come drunk or high as long as they don't cause trouble. Other shelters have hard limits, often imposed by funders. At Urban Peak, the city's youth shelter, for instance, Executive Director Shawna Kemppainen says she can only fit 20 youths. To help with the winter crunch, she is trying to move youths into apartments more quickly to free up space, and ensure that Urban Peak's outreach workers have plenty of life-saving blankets and sleeping bags to distribute.

With Phase I complete, SRM is moving on to its other goals — and it's running behind. It still needs to raise $2.5 million toward its second phase of expansion, which will include a commercial kitchen and a dining area for 200, alleviating the current need for the nonprofit to serve four breakfasts and dinners daily with lines out the door. (That need only grew when the Salvation Army recently stopped serving meals in nearby Dorchester Park.) Phase II also includes a welcome center with client triage (connecting people to the services they need), lockers and dog kennels, and a security checkpoint.

It was originally hoped that phase could be completed at the end of 2017. Now, Yonker says, there are additional challenges, such as the high cost of subcontractors to complete the work in a booming market.

SRM is also working on other projects like a center in Pueblo and a $14 million, 65-unit apartment complex in the Springs that's being developed by Nor'wood Development Group and is scheduled to start work in November. But Yonker says that a dual crisis is building in the Springs: More shelter and resources are needed for the chronically homeless population that SRM serves, but more help is also needed for the situational homeless — those who lose a home due to a crisis. That's the population that the Salvation Army, which once took in many of the city's chronically homeless, now serves. And Yonker says more beds will be needed as rents rise and families live on the edge.

On a Friday morning, Yonker is in the facility's new laundry room, washing towels donated by The Broadmoor.

The day center averaged about 82 people on August mornings, and clients took 2,124 showers that month. In the day center, clients can also access counseling and services intended to help them get off the streets for good, as well as the Department of Human Services, which used to be a long bus ride away on Garden of the Gods Road.

SRM is trying to become a one-stop shop for the homeless, and it's filling some big gaps. There used to be only two showers available for those living on the streets, both at Ecumenical Social Ministries downtown. And laundry has long been a big need, with homeless people often tossing dirty clothes in creek beds for lack of cleaning facilities. Now, clients are given coins to use SRM's machines.

Socorro Davila, 56, a smartly dressed woman with dark eyes, and streaks of silver in her hair, came to SRM in July. She's noticed the crowding, but says she was pleasantly surprised by how beautiful and clean the facility is, and how eager the people are to help her.

"It's fantastic," she says. "We have everything to be comfortable and move on."

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