Their Finest Hour 

After 16 hours of testimony, the City Council approves a controversial homeless complex

The Colorado Springs City Council waited until the bars were long closed before approving a massive one-stop homeless shopping mall that opponents say is the death knell for one of the city's last remaining working-class neighborhoods.

At 3:40 a.m. on Wednesday morning, after a marathon 16 hours of consideration over the controversial issue, the City Council approved the 53,000 square foot Montgomery Community Center (MCC) to be built south of downtown near the Drake Power Plant. The center, modeled after a similar mega-homeless mall in San Diego, will serve as an all-inclusive center that will house the Red Cross homeless shelter, the city's soup kitchen and a myriad of other services for the poor and homeless.

The powerful philanthropic El Pomar Foundation, which has teamed up with the Red Cross and promised $5 million to the project, initially threatened to withdraw its support after the city's planning commission rejected the proposal in August. Then, commissioners voted 5-1 that the facility was not compatible and would overwhelm the surrounding neighborhood. The nonprofit groups appealed the decision to the City Council.

And, late last week, Red Cross executives threw another bullying tactic at the city's elected leaders when someone allegedly leaked a threat to a Gazette reporter that after 16 years, the nonprofit was considering pulling out of the homeless shelter business altogether if their new center was not approved.

On Tuesday, Red Cross board of director chairwoman Sarah Jack said that the agency was not trying to threaten Council. While the option had been raised during a recent executive board meeting, Jack noted, "it wasn't supposed to get out" to the public.

On to council

Tuesday morning, Jon Stepleton, the vice president of the Gazette and a member of the Red Cross board of directors, opened up what became a 6 1/2-hour presentation by a legion of supporters detailing why they believe the one-stop center is best for Colorado Springs.

Stepleton spoke of his "personal journey" into the world of the homeless, recounting the tale of how on Thanksgiving Day five years ago he visited the homeless shelter and watched as then-shelter director Deb Mitguard, whom he described as an "angel," interacted with a small child.

Mitguard, now the MCC project director, spent several hours detailing their dream of providing a place that would offer a myriad of services under one roof to the city's down and out.

Kyle Blakely, an MCC steering committee member who was Mayor Mary Lou Makepeace's campaign manager last year, unveiled a video of a similar homeless "campus model" in San Diego.

The video featured Joe Carroll, a Catholic priest, talking about the success story there and extending a personal wish that he will travel to Colorado Springs to help with ribbon cutting ceremonies for a similar campus here.

Going full circle

Just after breaking for dinner at 6:30 p.m., the mayor told the Independent that she intended to keep her morning promise to the crowd and let people speak about anything they wanted to say for as long as they wanted. "I didn't realize how many people would have so much to say," Makepeace said.

After dinner, beginning at approximately 7:40 p.m., opponents who had been waiting nearly 12 hours to speak, were allowed to weigh in on the massive complex that they believe threatens their personal safety, their quality of life and their property values.

The Mill Street neighbor's complaints have been well documented: They are worried about the impact from nearly 500 homeless and down-and-out people who will be coming into their tiny, five-block long neighborhood every day of the year to access the shelter. They worry about the "hardcore" homeless people who may be drunk or high and turned away from the shelter into their neighborhood without acceptable security measures in place.

And, Lyn Akers, who has been leading the fight on behalf of the Mill Street neighbors, also weighed in via a videotaped interview. Suffering from cancer, Akers was too ill to attend the Council hearing, but calmly asked the council to consider the wisdom of putting a neighborhood at risk -- and pushing through a non-urgent proposal.

"We are under no crisis right now, we have time to sit down and figure out how to do this," Akers said.

Many Mill Street residents who already encounter homeless in their neighborhood, pointed out the issue is not a NIMBY concern. Many opponents pointed out that the city is avoiding the real problem -- a dearth of affordable and low-income housing.

And attorney Steve Mullens provided his own version of what he believes would be a misguided effort -- taking the homeless out of the mainstream, and institutionalizing them, Gulag-style, "in the eerie shadow of the Nixon Power Plant."

After midnight

By midnight, the government hearing seemed more like a surreal performing arts hall, with Mayor Makepeace leaving the floor open to anyone who wanted to speak about anything even vaguely related to the shelter or the topic of homelessness.

At 12:25 a.m., Colorado Springs resident Angelo Christopher took the podium, the first time the 50-year Colorado Springs resident has ever appeared before the City Council.

Christopher noted that he had been waiting his turn to talk since 8 a.m. the previous day. "[I was] hoping to say good morning, then good afternoon, then good evening and now it's good morning again," Christopher said to the elected officials, drawing roars of laughter from the audience.

For nearly a half-hour, Christopher took the crowd through the spirited details of his career -- including his days teaching at South Jr. High School, and his elation when Lyndon B. Johnson announced the country's official War on Poverty.

"I said, 'It's about time,' " Christopher recalled.

Christopher eventually became the local executive director of the War on Poverty, and helped open various centers around the city where they were needed, including what eventually became the Hillside Community Center.

He urged the Council to consider a similar tactic of offering satellite service centers around an increasingly sprawling city, rather than dumping everything into one big complex. A one-stop homeless mall might be helpful for the agencies who provide social services, he said, but not necessarily for the poor people who will use them.

Stop making sense

At 2:30 a.m., with 100 people still looking on, the City Council appeared on its way to a serious meltdown.

"If I can think clearly this time of night, the concern out there is that when men are sleeping under bushes and intimidating people the fear increases," Makepeace said.

Shortly thereafter, a "quick break" was ordered, and the Council disappeared into their private chambers.

Meanwhile, a group of El Pomar and Red Cross shelter proponents gathered in a power huddle in one corner of the meeting room. In another section of the room, top city managers put their heads together.

At 2:42 a.m., shelter opponent Matt Parkhouse questioned the wisdom of continuing a discussion over such a serious matter at that hour of the night. "I desperately hope [the Council] says no and I desperately hope the Red Cross doesn't take their marbles and go home," Parkhouse said. "If they OK this tonight the whole process will be tainted and they will have destroyed a neighborhood."

At 2:45 a.m., the mayor reconvened the Council and noted, "Let's see if we can come to closure."

Some new ideas

But that was not to be. At 2:50 a.m., Councilman Richard Skorman summoned city Senior Transportation Planner Tim Roberts, asking him, "How do you feel with all the talk about traffic?" To which Roberts replied, "It's real, there are safety issues here [but] I don't have an answer."

At 3:08, Councilman Ted Eastburn veered in another direction -- calling for less asphalt. He and Makepeace suddenly became architects, arguing over the size, scope and "footprint" of the proposed structure. "Could it be downsized?" Eastburn wondered.

"You don't have to redraw the plan tonight," noted city planner Quinn Peitz.

At 3:14 a.m., Councilwoman Linda Barley started asking for traffic patterns and playgrounds.

A minute later, Councilwoman Judy Noyes seized on the traffic issue and asked Roberts whether Mill Street could be narrowed, to reduce the amount of traffic headed that way.

At 3:23 a.m., Councilman Lionel Rivera formally proposed removing the soup kitchen from the one-stop shopping mall, and eliminating much of the foot traffic through the neighborhood. Otherwise the project would be approved.

Skorman seconded the motion, opining that the impact from the estimated 500 additional people descending on the tiny neighborhood every day, 365 days a year, was too much. "It's too big, too much for the neighborhood," Skorman said.

That measure was defeated 5-3, with Eastburn, Barley, Makepeace, Noyes and Null in opposition.

The witching hour

Null then moved to approve the shelter, with a few contingencies that brought new confusion to the drama.

Essentially, Null proposed that the shelter keep the soup kitchen but eliminate the overnight temporary shelter that Marian House currently offers to that hard-core homeless population when temperatures dip below zero.

By this time of night the mayor was calling the overnight temporary shelter the "temperature thing."

At 3:40 a.m., with Skorman and Rivera protesting the negative impact on the tiny neighborhood -- a punch-drunk City Council voted 6-2 to approve the massive one-stop homeless mall. Councilman Bill Guman was home sick.

Editor's note:

The Independent has reported extensively on the El Pomar Foundation and Red Cross' plans to build a $5 million one-stop shopping mall, the Montgomery Community Center. The saga started with their initial, unsuccessful attempt to secretly install their massive one-stop homeless shelter in the Hillside neighborhood southeast of downtown in 1999, and their subsequent push for the project in the Mill Street neighborhood.

The following is an archive of related stories and editorials, starting with the most recent:

Editorial: Why I oppose the proposed Montgomery Community Center
by Malcolm Howard

Homeless complex battle goes to City Council
by Bob Campbell

Your Turn: Homeless center or affordable housing which is needed more?
by Debbie Mitguard and Stephen Handen

Study links homeless to affordable housing crisis
by Bob Campbell

Public Eye
by Cara DeGette

Public Eye
by Malcolm Howard and John Hazlehurst

Editorial: Working their way out of a job

Shelter plan poorly conceived, neighbors say
by Malcolm Howard

Project leaves trailer park residents in the lurch
by Bob Campbell

Rail plan leaves neighbors divided
By Malcolm Howard


There Goes the Neighborhood
by Malcolm Howard

Shelter plan could destroy neighborhood
by Malcolm Howard

Mystery buyer stirs up neighborhood
by Malcolm Howard

Letters on the issue
www.csindy.com/csindy/2000-10-26/letters.html www.csindy.com/csindy/2000-08-24/letters.html www.csindy.com/csindy/2000-08-16/letters.html


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