Homeless shelters wield more resources than ever 

Winter is coming

click to enlarge The city forced residents to leave the site of a homeless encampment south of downtown in December. - FAITH MILLER
  • Faith Miller
  • The city forced residents to leave the site of a homeless encampment south of downtown in December.

On Oct. 10, Colorado Springs experienced its first snow of the season. Temperatures plunged to a low of 14 degrees.

Just as the weather broke records (the day’s previous record low of 17 degrees was set in 1946), so too did one homeless service provider, Springs Rescue Mission. The shelter housed approximately 475 people experiencing homelessness that night — shattering its previous record of 447, set in May, according to Chief Development Officer Travis Williams.

Williams says the facility doesn’t plan to set a maximum occupancy level at this point: “For those who seek shelter, we’ll provide shelter.”

Springs Rescue Mission added 150 low-barrier (sobriety not required)beds last season — funded in part by $500,000 from the city — and the Salvation Army Shelter & Services at RJ Montgomery removed sobriety requirements for its 220 beds. But it’s rare that all of those beds are full on any given night. In the three days leading up to Oct. 10, for example, Springs Rescue Mission had 100 or more open beds.

On Oct. 10, however, Springs Rescue Mission’s beds were all full (staff had to bring in extra mats) and the Salvation Army filled all but 23 beds.

The fact that so many beds were occupied that night signals the changes will make a valuable difference, if only on the coldest nights of the year.

“This winter will be the first winter our community has seen with the expanded shelter bed capacity,” says Andrew Phelps, the city’s homelessness prevention and response coordinator, who helped spearhead the push for more beds.

“I do think there’s room for more people at Springs Rescue Mission, but if it continues and they are reaching a point where they are unable to shelter more, they would communicate that with the city,” Phelps adds. “And then I would begin reaching out to the faith community to make room for people to shelter safely [in places of worship], but I don’t think we’re there yet.”

click to enlarge Volunteers filled 1,000 knapsacks with socks, toothbrushes and other items for homeless people and presented them to homeless shelters and service providers Sept. 20. - FAITH MILLER
  • Faith Miller
  • Volunteers filled 1,000 knapsacks with socks, toothbrushes and other items for homeless people and presented them to homeless shelters and service providers Sept. 20.

Meanwhile, Springs Rescue
Mission has also begun tackling housing for the chronically homeless.

Greenway Flats, a permanent supportive housing facility, opened in June on Springs Rescue Mission’s campus in partnership with Nor’wood Development Group and property management company Ross Management Group. It accommodates 65 “very vulnerable individuals” who had been homeless for at least a year, Williams says.

Unlike transitional housing facilities where people are encouraged to eventually leave, Williams says Greenway Flats’ residents are generally free to live there as long as they like.

Residents may have experienced mental illness, substance use disorders and trauma from living on the streets. Most people have housing vouchers or Social Security payments that can help cover the cost of rent, Williams says.

He points out that had the residents in Greenway Flats and Springs Rescue Mission’s yearlong addiction recovery program been included in the shelter count totals, the nonprofit kept around 585 people out of the cold Oct. 10.

The city in the past year has both increased shelter capacity and tightened enforcement of rules that prohibit public camping. And by at least one count, the numbers appear to show that more homeless people are staying in shelters and fewer are staying outside — so it’s plausible those changes made a difference.

According to January’s Point-in-Time homeless count, the total number of people experiencing homelessness in Colorado Springs stabilized after three years of consecutive large increases.

The federally mandated estimate, considered an undercount, is conducted every year on a single night in January. Volunteers this year recorded a total of 1,562 people staying outside, in emergency shelters and living in transitional housing — 11 more than last year, representing an increase of less than 1 percent.

This year’s numbers showed a 13 percent decrease in the number of unsheltered people (those staying in tents, in cars or on the streets). Meanwhile, 7.7 percent more people were counted in emergency shelters and transitional housing.

click to enlarge Jan Lightfoot, left, and Lucy Tamayo protest rental income requirements. - FAITH MILLER
  • Faith Miller
  • Jan Lightfoot, left, and Lucy Tamayo protest rental income requirements.

But Lucy Tamayo, a longtime resident of Colorado Springs, points out that there are “different levels of homeless,” and many — such as herself — aren’t counted by volunteers canvassing the streets on a given night.

Tamayo says her disability payment amounts to slightly more than $1,000 a month, and though she could use that money to rent her own apartment, she hasn’t been able to find a place in two years. That’s because most landlords in Colorado Springs, she says, require renters to provide proof they make 21/2 or three times the cost of rent.

“I could afford to pay my rent, you know,” Tamayo says. “I just don’t have that opportunity because of what the landlords expect you to pay.”

For the past two years, Tamayo has been staying with a friend, Jan Lightfoot. Carrying signs labeled “World Homeless Day: Fix Locally” and “Solutions Designed for ALL,” the pair walked up and down Cascade Avenue as the season’s first snow dusted downtown.

“We get along really good,” Tamayo says of Lightfoot and another roommate. “... But they need their space. I want my space, you know.”

“Of course you do,” Lightfoot reassures her.

Tamayo and Lightfoot (who has also been homeless) are feeling the pinch of Colorado Springs’ critical lack of affordable housing. Though Tamayo has her name on the waiting list at several different low-income apartments, demand is ever increasing.

Phelps says the city plans to release a new affordable housing plan, one of the initiatives listed in the Homelessness Action Plan published earlier this year.

He encourages those who find themselves in situations like Tamayo’s to visit helpcos.org to learn about resources that may be able to help them. Because every person’s situation is different, Phelps stresses the importance of visiting a case manager at a housing nonprofit who can provide tailored advice.

“Affordable housing remains the elephant in the room when it comes to homelessness, and the city continues to be committed to increasing access to affordable housing in our community,” he says.

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