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One mother's search for stability in Colorado Springs 

Miles from home

click to enlarge BRYAN OLLER
  • Bryan Oller

Lynae Payton sometimes has trouble remembering things.

It's nothing too bad, she says. But when she arrived in Colorado Springs in October, she didn't recall the city clearly, though she'd been here before. She tries not to get frustrated when small things slip her mind.

It didn't always happen. Before April, she says, her memory was sharp. And there are some events she recalls in painful detail.

In April, Payton says her partner of 11 years beat her within inches of her life, leaving her with the head injuries she believes are now causing memory loss.

Later the YWCA in Norfolk, Virginia, relocated Payton with her four young children to an apartment where "it felt like stability," she says. Until her tormentor broke in one night while she was cooking dinner.

"From there it was about every two weeks or so he would come and break in, or, you know, just torture us, because I had left," she says.

Finally, Payton realized she had no choice but to move in with her mother in Colorado Springs. But her troubles didn't end there. Like many renters, Payton's mother wasn't supposed to have visitors stay longer than two weeks. She hoped the management would make an exception. Instead, Payton, her four children and her mother were evicted.

"They basically told my mom that they could get somebody in there for more money," she says.

Payton's tried to find a place that would rent to her, but many landlords in Colorado Springs require renters to have lived in the city and held a job for a certain length of time. She used most of her money from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) so her family could stay in a hotel, where she spent five days calling shelters and nonprofits. But Springs Rescue Mission can't take children, and the Salvation Army Shelter & Services at RJ Montgomery's family beds were full.

Payton began to wonder whether she should have just stayed in Virginia.

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Beth Roalstad, the executive director of housing nonprofit Homeward Pikes Peak, says Payton's situation reflects a daily reality at her organization: No one really chooses to be homeless.

"When you are an individual who is a renter and don't have that sense of security, you are at the whim of a business contract," Roalstad says. "And life does not match business contracts."

Data collected by 11 El Paso County school districts shows 449 families and 1,117 students without permanent housing in the county, according to a 2018 report. This data includes children who are staying temporarily with friends or relatives, those "hidden" from homeless counts.

At a Nov. 15 town hall meeting to discuss the city's Homelessness Action Plan, one woman shared the story of her own brush with homelessness.

From March to October, Jessica Shah said she lived out of an SUV with two kids, a dog and her husband. Though Shah's husband had a job, she says it wasn't enough to pay for housing in Colorado Springs. Shah, who was pregnant and had systemic lupus, couldn't go back to work until September.

The family got an apartment in October, Shah says, at Pine Creek Village — what she calls "the slums" — for $866 a month. But they only have three months to find another affordable place to live.

That's presumably because Pine Creek Village is one of several complexes Denver-based Slipstream Properties purchased from Terry Ragan earlier this year. Some lauded the move, as Ragan's complexes had been known for crime and code violations. But they were also known for cheap rent.

"The challenge is that [Slipstream has] invested in these properties and they are now going to turn over and make these market-rate apartments after they've finished cleaning them up," Roalstad says. "Well, if you think about that, that's going to be 1,200 units in the next two years that are going from affordable to market-rate. We as a community are going to see the burden of that."

Shah, Payton and countless others are feeling the effects of a staggering shortage of affordable housing. A 2014 study predicted a shortage of 24,000 affordable units by 2019 for those making up to 120 percent of area median income (AMI) in El Paso County.

The city's Homelessness Action Plan calls for a "comprehensive affordable housing plan" to reassess the need and develop strategies for attracting developers. In his State of the City speech this fall, Mayor John Suthers proposed adding 1,000 affordable units each year to address the shortage.

click to enlarge Lynae Payton says her faith in God helps her always find a way to provide for her children. - BRYAN OLLER
  • Bryan Oller
  • Lynae Payton says her faith in God helps her always find a way to provide for her children.

City officials remain publicly optimistic that they'll be able to attract developers willing to price apartments below market rent with state and federal tax credits and grant money.

"By and large, Colorado Springs is one of the least expensive places to build here in the state of Colorado," says Steve Posey, the city's Housing and Urban Development (HUD) program administrator. "And ... because we are working very hard to make sure that developers who are interested in building these projects have a smooth path in front of them, this is a place where developers want to come."

Not everyone feels the same way. At the Nov. 15 town hall meeting, tensions erupted as Shah, Payton and others confronted city officials, demanding that they make more of an effort to add affordable housing.

Homeward Pikes Peak's Roalstad thinks Colorado Springs could do much more to attract developers.

"What our city has not done is used general fund dollars from taxation towards this issue of affordable housing," Roalstad says. "So I believe as an advocate that if our city was committed to increasing affordable housing, that they would find a way within the city's overall budget to add or to match the amount that they receive from HUD."

Some say a lack of federal dollars for public housing also plays a role.

This was the first year HUD implemented Small Area Fair Market Rents (FMRs) for certain metropolitan areas (following a smaller pilot), a move that aims to desegregate neighborhoods, defining FMRs for Section 8 voucher holders by ZIP code instead of metro area. But it didn't come with a budget increase, which worries Chad Wright, the executive director of the Colorado Springs Housing Authority.

"If we start having a lot of vouchers that are going to ... higher-cost ZIP codes, then in theory, if the budget doesn't increase, it could really put stress on the meeting the number of vouchers that HUD provides us to allocate," Wright says.

Even getting on the list for a voucher is difficult. Colorado Springs Housing Authority only accepts applications once a year through an online lottery process. "We've seen consistently high demand over the last several years," Wright says.

And even those lucky enough to get a voucher will likely take longer finding a rental in the tightening market, Wright and Roalstad both say. Wright also points out that HUD only pays for about 77 percent of administration costs for CSHA: "We're certainly trying to make the best of a difficult market and a difficult funding situation from HUD."

Two days before Payton's money ran out, the Salvation Army opened up beds for her family.

That was a couple of weeks ago, Payton said when we met at the shelter Nov. 29. She'd just returned from dropping off her three older children — two girls, 10 and 6, and an 8-year-old boy — at school. Her youngest, 3-year-old Andre, played outside in the winter sun.

"If it wasn't for my belief and faith, I don't know how else I would make it, because there are days I don't know how I'm going to get my kids to school, I don't know how I'm going to feed them. I don't know. And it's happening," Payton says. "I've got to believe that it's because of my faith."

Payton says she wants to share her story because she hopes to help others in similar situations. Though she's quick to express gratitude toward the Salvation Army, Payton says she's disappointed by the lack of resources in Colorado Springs to help people exit homelessness.

Payton plans to find a place she can afford by applying for disability before her family's 90 days at the Salvation Army run out. While someday, she wants to help advocate for people who've gone through ordeals like hers, she doesn't feel ready for a job yet. She longs for stability and is worried memory loss might affect her at work.

"I've just got to have hope that it's going to get better," she says.

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