Working their way out of a job 

The Colorado Springs Planning Commission should be commended for their gutsy rejection of a massive one-stop homeless mall that would have an immediate and negative impact on the Mill Street neighborhood south of downtown.

Last week's 5-1 vote to reject the $6 million center came after nearly five hours of emotional testimony from home and business owners in one of the last working-class neighborhoods in Colorado Springs, where the non-rich can still attain the dream of being proud homeowners.

In effect, the American Red Cross and the El Pomar Foundation want to combine the city's homeless shelter, the soup kitchen and several other services geared toward the homeless, the low-income and the needy.

Ironically, these powerful groups wanted to buy out several Mill Street homes and tear them down to build the massive complex designed to consolidate many of the services for low-income and homeless individuals and families. The increase in homeless people wandering through the neighborhood would have increased dramatically.

We contend that no neighborhood -- whether it be Mill Street, the Broadmoor or Hillside -- where proponents initially hoped to build the complex -- should bear the brunt of such a massive complex.

Consolidated services may be easier for the providers, but not necessarily for the patrons who use them. In this proposal, basic logistical issues -- like the lack of a regular bus route to the complex -- were not addressed.

In addition, neighbors pointed out that the center's promise of a 24-hour hotline, to be manned by the center's staff -- was inadequate to deal with the likelihood of increased security problems for the surrounding neighborhood.

After hearing testimony from the neighbors and affected business owners, many planning commissioners noted the proposal was not in harmony with the neighborhood, which is their number one requisite when determining whether to approve a project.

Standing up against two of the most powerful nonprofits in town is never easy, and the commissioners' rejection took guts. But, as Commissioner Cedric Johnson noted, the citizens' concerns outweighed the need for the sparkling new shelter.

A larger question -- whether Colorado Springs really needs such a massive one-stop shopping homeless mall -- has not been adequately addressed. The current shelter is housed in a warehouse, but in recent years, thanks to El Pomar's generosity, it has received a half-million dollar facelift. It is far from filled to capacity.

During her testimony, shelter director Deb Mitguard stated that, though the existing facility currently has many empty beds, the Red Cross must "plan for the future." During her presentation, she also argued that Colorado Springs could become a national model for homeless services.

We admire Mitguard for her devotion to the down-and-out. But we find those comments disconcerting. Mitguard's claim -- that the city needs to make plans for an economic downturn that would result in even more homelessness -- is an antithesis to the whole tenet of the battle against homelessness.

In the two decades-plus since homelessness has become a national crisis, service providers routinely and only half-jokingly claim that they are trying to work themselves out of their jobs.

We agree with Mitguard that the city needs to plan for the future. But the city -- and the Red Cross and El Pomar -- would better serve the community if they stepped up to the plate to tackle the root of the problem, the city's critical lack of affordable housing.

Three years ago, the City Council appointed a committee to study the affordable housing crunch, and last year the group's findings were presented. The statistics are of near-emergency proportions; Colorado Springs needs roughly 37,000 affordable housing units to meet current backlog in low-rent apartments.

The commission recommended that the city respond to the crisis by creating a trust fund for affordable housing projects. Instead, the City Council politely thanked the group and set their recommendations aside. At the time, the elected leaders noted that they preferred private sector funding solutions (i.e. contributed money) to alleviate the city's dearth of affordable housing.

After last week's denial, El Pomar President Thayer Tutt said El Pomar and the Red Cross would need to "reevaluate support for homeless services in the Pikes Peak region." For decades, the philanthropic foundation -- currently with $450 million in assets -- has helped an untold number of needy in Colorado Springs and this community owes it a debt of gratitude.

But, with respect to Mr. Tutt and Ms. Mitguard, we don't need to be a national model for homeless services.

It would be nice, however, to develop a national model that would help alleviate the heartbreaking problem of homelessness here. And we hope that, when El Pomar appeals the planning commission's decision to the City Council, our elected leaders urge the groups to focus on the real solution -- creating affordable housing -- by being the first to donate a large contribution to the community housing trust fund. p


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