Despite available resources, many homeless people choose to live in their vehicles, if that’s an option.

While there are resources available for people experiencing homelessness in El Paso County, demand outstrips supply and mistrust of the housing system and shelter rules keep many people living on the streets, or in their cars.

“We make them understand there’s resources,” says Sgt. Olav Chaney with Colorado Springs Police Department’s Homeless Outreach Team. “Now, whether they choose to accept them... which is unfortunate because there’s so many that do not want to accept the resources. They come up with so many excuses. ‘They don’t take dogs.’ That’s not true, they take dogs. ‘They have rules and regulations.’ That is true, they have rules and regulations because they’re trying to keep a safe environment. They can’t drink and smoke in these places, and that’s a rule, so they say, ‘It’s easier to stay out and live in my car or in a tent, because I can drink and do my drugs out here.’”

Even though the HOT team offers resources, their primary function is law enforcement, which colors the interactions they have with unhoused community members. “I believe that there are many more people that would like assistance in getting off the streets than people who are resistant to help and support,” says Beth Roalstad, executive director of Homeward Pikes Peak, a group that works with the Pikes Peak Continuum of Care to offer housing options to homeless people. “What we find is that many people have lost trust in the so-called ‘housing system’ because they run into barriers and they feel it’s a lost cause, that they’re never going to get housed.”

For many houseless individuals, Springs Rescue Mission is the most commonly offered resource, but according to Chaney, few take advantage of it. “Last night Springs Rescue Mission had 132 available beds, total — 122 were men’s beds and 10 were female beds,” he says.

While Springs Rescue Mission does offer shelter beds, it also offers a wide variety of shelter options and support services for people experiencing homelessness. “Springs Rescue Mission is a comprehensive resource for men and women in El Paso County who are struggling with poverty, homelessness and/or addiction,” says Travis Williams, the chief development officer at Springs Rescue Mission. “We have, in one centralized location, programming resources to meet a variety of needs. Those needs could be from providing meals to individuals who need them, it could be providing shelter to people who need it. From there we have a wide variety of housing programs, health programs and employment and work programs to help people find the best and most optimal pathway out of homelessness, poverty, or addiction.”

Despite Chaney’s interactions, Williams says the Rescue Mission actively serves the homeless community. “Over a 12-month period of time we will help and provide resources for at least 3,000 unique individuals,” he says. “Every day on our campus we will provide shelter for over 300 people. We have the capacity to shelter 450 people, so when the temperatures drop we have plenty of space for people who need shelter. They can find shelter. We will provide 800 meals at the rescue mission. There may be some people who are not desiring resources, but there are so many that are coming to the Springs Rescue Mission to find help, hope, restoration in their circumstance.”

Williams hears the same objections as the HOT team, but says they’re willing to work with people. “When we look at low-barrier, we provide services to people in whatever condition they come in to Springs Rescue Mission,” he says. “What that means is that we will have people on campus, regardless of whether they come into the Mission with a substance in their system, whether they have a pet. Many rescue missions across the nation, if you have a pet you’re not really able to enter and find services. We have places for pets. If you have something on your record that you’re not proud of or that would limit you from being in many other environments, we are going to work to accommodate folks to be on campus. That doesn’t mean we don’t have rules on campus. The basic rules boil down to, ‘You can’t cause harm to yourself or to others while you’re on campus at the Springs Rescue Mission.’ Because we do shelter and serve a lot of people, we do have to have some level of decorum as well, just timing of things. We have lunch time and dinner time. Some people will look at those and say those are harsh rules that you serve breakfast at 8 o’clock instead of 10:30 [a.m.], but again that’s because we’re providing services for a lot of people.”

Ultimately, the goal of groups like Homeward Pikes Peak and Springs Rescue Mission is to get people off the streets. “Our ultimate goal is to help people move into more stable housing,” says Williams. “Greenway Flats is an example of that. It’s Colorado Springs’ first permanent supportive housing project. It’s a 65-unit complex. It’s now celebrated over two years of being in existence, and we provide many of the services for folks who are in Greenway Flats. It’s a philosophy called ‘Housing First,’ and the idea is if you can house people and remove some of the trauma from being homeless they can begin to address some of the other underlying challenges that they face that maybe made them more vulnerable to becoming homeless in the first place.”

In addition to housing options like Greenway Flats and Freedom Springs, a permanent supportive housing option for veterans, Homeward Pikes Peak works to get people into housing through a voucher program. “They are called ‘Shelter Plus Care Vouchers’ in the HUD [Housing and Urban Development] system,” says Roalstad. “They’re similar to Section 8, but they’re different enough that they get a different name. It’s just like it sounds: You get the housing rental assistance and your housing is combined with a case manager, so that whatever challenges you have, the case manager helps you navigate those and stay stably housed out in the community.”

Homeward Pikes Peak works with the HOT team to get the unhoused enrolled in the program, but there is significant demand. Slots for housing vouchers or space at places like Greenway Flats are provided based on the results of a survey  that determines their level of need and prioritizes them accordingly. “An individual who is homeless needs to have an interview,” explains Roalstad. “It’s called the Housing Survey or the VI-SPDAT, Vulnerability Index Service Provision Data Analysis Tool, and everybody who is homeless and wants to have housing takes this survey. Our outreach workers do it. It’s about a three-page interview, it takes about half an hour to an hour. It really goes through what are your vulnerabilities, what are your challenges? How long have you been homeless? Are you a victim of domestic violence? Have you been beat up? It’s so many questions. Everybody who gets this survey is ranked, by vulnerability, on a by-name list and every week all of the providers of the survey and housing meet and we discuss — out of everyone in the community — who’s the most vulnerable and who should we try to match with resources right now?”

The demand for permanent supportive housing is one of the things that leads Chaney to point homeless people to Springs Rescue Mission. “It takes an awful long time for them, especially in the lower bracket, to even get close to some kind of housing,” he says. “We tell them, ‘There were this many beds last night at the Rescue Mission, how come you don’t want to stay there?’”

Once people are able to access housing, they tend to stay put. “There is a waiting list, but the idea of permanent supportive housing is you’re trying to keep people with a roof over their heads, so you’re hoping for minimal turnover,” notes Williams. “To some degree there will be turnover in the apartments. If an apartment turns over there’s always someone ready and waiting to be able to get into a program like that. It is based off the VI-SPDAT and folks have to meet certain criteria on a vulnerability index in order to have some prioritization to be in one of those units.”

While housing and shelter is the primary resource in demand, there are also plenty of organizations offering mental health and substance abuse programs, which are disproportionately needed within homeless populations. “We have three full-time substance abuse and mental health licensed clinicians and they provide one-on-one individual counseling and addictions counseling groups for folks,” says Roalstad.

Springs Rescue Mission also offers a variety of programs. “Health is so important to us at the Rescue Mission, and helping people find optimal health is often a key in order for folks to move forward,” says Williams. “We’re happy that in one centralized location — so a homeless person doesn’t have to navigate the entire city to find many of the resources they need  from a physical health perspective — Peak Vista offers services at the Springs Rescue Mission; Diversus offers mental health services at the Springs Rescue Mission. We have Cocaine Anonymous, Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, along with SRM’s own addiction recovery programs on campus. It’s not uncommon on any given day for there to be nearly 30 percent of the folks we’re serving — over 125 people every day, every week — working on some level of their mental health or actively engaged in an addiction recovery program. What’s beautiful is all of that is in one centralized location, so if people are struggling they can find many of the services they need in one spot.” 

News Reporter

Heidi Beedle is a former soldier, educator, activist, and animal welfare worker. She received a Bachelor’s in English from UCCS. She has worked as a freelance writer covering LGBTQ issues, nuclear disasters, cattle mutilations, and social movements.