Nonprofits have different approaches to deal with demand as local homeless headcount rises 

click to enlarge ESM provides career education to women in need. - FAITH MILLER
  • Faith Miller
  • ESM provides career education to women in need.
The numbers are out: Homelessness increased by 9.8 percent in El Paso County from 2017 to 2018. That’s according to the Jan. 28 Point-in-Time (PIT) homeless headcount, conducted by volunteers.

It’s the third straight year the homeless population has increased, and this comes at a time when rental rates and housing prices in the Pikes Peak region are spiking. This year, 1,551 homeless people were identified, compared to 1,415 last year, and 1,302 in 2016. The PIT is an undercount, as not everyone will cooperate with the surveyors, nor can all people be located.

Strategies for helping people get off the streets vary from charity to charity, though nationally the “housing-first” strategy — getting chronically homeless people in housing before addressing issues like substance abuse, mental health counseling and job training — has grown in popularity.

The low-barrier concept aligns well with the housing-first strategy. Used by Springs Rescue Mission, the area’s largest shelter, it prioritizes providing shelter regardless of age, family relationships or sobriety. SRM provides year-round, low-barrier housing for up to 230 men and 70 women, and is in the midst of a series of expansions that included a 168-bed low-barrier shelter in 2016, a resource center last fall, and a larger kitchen, dining hall and welcome center to come.

In spite of that, the PIT found that the unsheltered homeless population was up 12.2 percent from 2017, with 513 on the street this year. That’s also despite an increase of 217 emergency/winter shelter beds since last year.

SRM President and CEO Larry Yonker couldn’t be reached for comment on the growing demand.

During this year’s count, when 180 volunteers canvassed the county to tally the homeless population, 100 percent of “low-barrier” beds were occupied. But there were 170 spots left open, including “high-barrier” beds, beds for special populations such as youth and families, and several mats on the floor.

That’s because some shelters employ different strategies than SRM or serve different populations. Those include nonprofits like Urban Peak Colorado Springs, which provides shelter and programs for homeless youth, and Ecumenical Social Ministries, which has a women’s shelter and a variety of programs. Both have some requirements for those seeking shelter, such as sobriety on premises.

While the number of children experiencing homelessness decreased this year, the youth homeless population (ages 18 to 24) grew by a whopping 23 percent. Shawna Kemppainen, executive director of Urban Peak, said the numbers show the need for more resources, not only more beds, but also other kinds of assistance.

“Youth are in such a transition age, and by the nature of the kind of families they’ve often come out of, they need additional support,” Kemppainen said. She added that two primary factors contributing to youth homelessness are family instability — by some estimates, up to 50 percent of youths experiencing homelessness have been through the foster care system — and rejection of LGBTQ youths by family members.

Urban Peak’s Colorado Springs location has 20 beds available for youths between the ages of 15 and 20. The nonprofit also works with private landlords and other nonprofits to put youths in permanent shelter, and currently assists about 60 young people in different levels of housing, Kemppainen said.

While Kemppainen said Urban Peak supports the housing-first model, she said the nonprofit’s 20 beds are considered “medium barrier.” That means those staying at the shelter must meet some requirements; for example, they cannot arrive intoxicated.

“You don’t have to be a sober person, and you could test positive for THC, but you can’t be high,” Kemppainen said. “You can’t be inebriated and stay at our shelter.”

Kemppainen said Urban Peak has plans for a new drop-in center, where there will be more services available other than those the nonprofit’s street outreach team can provide, including showers, laundry services, a computer lab and counseling. Youths dealing with substance abuse issues will have access to the center, even if they’re currently intoxicated.

“It will be very behavior-based versus sobriety-based,” Kemppainen said. “So if you’re OK, not hurting yourself or someone else, you can come into the drop-in center and utilize the services and get engaged there.”

Another local nonprofit, Ecumenical Social Ministries, puts the emphasis on services, such as showers, laundry, medical care and food. It also provides transitional, higher-barrier housing through the WISH House program for single women experiencing homelessness. Females (adults and children) made up about 35 percent of the total homeless population in El Paso County this year.

ESM executive director the Rev. Ann Lantz said just providing housing often isn’t sufficient for getting people out of the cycle of homelessness.

“I believe that those (housing-first) programs have a pretty high failure rate,” Lantz said. “Because the skills that people learn and use to survive on the streets do not serve them well when they’re living in a communal living, apartment sort of setup.”

Through the WISH House program, ESM houses up to 16 single women at one time, where they live in four-bed rooms and can use a kitchen, TV room and computer room. The women are required to work, volunteer or attend job training during the day. ESM works with the women to identify the root cause of their homelessness, and provides services such as financial advice to help them become self-sufficient, Lantz said.

Lantz believes that the rising cost of rent in El Paso County contributes to homelessness. Between 2017 and 2018, the average one-bedroom rental rate rose from $917 to $1,013 — more than 10 percent — according to the Point-in-Time report.

“I think right now the biggest increase that we’re seeing are people who a year ago were housed, and their rent went up to an extent where they can no longer afford it,” she said.

Lantz said one obstacle for people living in poverty is that they often pay much more in rent than they would on a home mortgage, but don’t have the credit rating or can’t afford the down payment to purchase a home.

“They’re stuck in the rental market, which just keeps going up,” she said.


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