(Editor’s note: This is first in a series on issues around homelessness in Colorado Springs. The second, on the clearing of the Shooks Run homeless camp is here. The third, on the city’s Homeless Response Action Plan is here.)
Colorado Springs–As Colorado Springs prepares to evict homeless campers from the city’s largest homeless camp, the Quarry, on Dec. 11, Juliette Parker is pushing to build a 60-unit tiny-home village to give homeless veterans a healthy place to live. She says her plan provides both homes and access to the services they need to recover from homelessness, addiction and mental illness.
Parker, the daughter of a veteran, grew up all over and came to Colorado Springs from San Antonio in June, 2017 with her daughter Faith, 15, and son Tristan, 9. Planning to move to Washington state, she realized while on vacation here that Colorado was a lot like Washington, “but sunny,” she said.
Last Christmas Faith was begging for a new phone. “She was feeling rather entitled about things that she felt she deserved and needed,” said Parker.
When Christmas came and Faith didn’t get the phone, “She started going off about all of the things she didn’t have and how she’s going without, so I decided she needed to have a reminder of how little she really could have and how lucky she really is.”
In January, Juliette and Faith signed up to help with the state’s annual Point in Time (PIT) count of the homeless. They connected with Blackbird Outreach, a local homeless advocacy organization. “We went out to the different camps and met different people and interviewed and helped getting the numbers for the state. It was a real eye-opener for both of us,” said Parker.
Contrary to both their expectations the stereotypes they held towards the homeless quickly evaporated. “I didn’t interact with homeless people before,” said Juliette. “But Faith had never actually met a homeless person. She was just amazed. She had this stereotype in her head that they were all druggies and bad people. She was like, ‘these are like the nicest people I’ve ever met, they were so kind and nice.’”
“During the PIT count we were hearing all these stories about ordinances here in Colorado Springs, like ‘you can’t sit down on the park bench, you can’t fall asleep in the park, you can’t eat while you’re walking down the sidewalk or in the park,’” said Parker. “I thought this can’t be accurate, people have got to be exaggerating, so I went home and looked it all up and they were not exaggerating at all.” Upset at what Juliette found, Faith said, “Well, that’s mean, how can they do that?”’
Juliette and Faith decided to act. “We went out that week and bought $100 worth of jackets and coats from ARC and a bunch of stuff from the Dollar Store and made these little ditty-bags with sanitizer, toilet paper, tooth brushes and handed them out,” she said. “That’s pretty much how I started, and I kept going from there.”
As did Faith, who took the experience to heart.
“She’s amazing,” said Parker. “She does a lot and she’s very gung-ho about this. She’s great about telling kids at her school about it.”
Hearing that the city police Homeless Outreach Team (HOT) had tagged a homeless camp at Rocky Top Resources to be cleared out, Faith organized more than 300 students from her high school to protest the eviction. Before the protest and evictions began the city decided instead to file zoning violations against the property owner and get him to evict them. Correct or not, Parker attributes the change in tactics to Faith, who has become a full-fledged advocate for the homeless.
“It was very empowering for Faith to see that she could actually effect change. That she, this teenager who has no power in her mind, could stop those people from getting evicted right then,” said Parker. “Between meeting the homeless a few weeks before and seeing how they live and talking to them and then being able to actually stop something from happening, it was very empowering to her, and I think that that is probably something that will stick with her for a very, very long time.”
Shelter beds aren’t right for everyone
“If you were homeless, would you want to stay in a shelter? I wouldn’t,” says Parker. “I’d be terrified. Oh my God, you have no privacy, no protection, no anything, you can’t lock the door, you can’t go to the bathroom by yourself, you can’t bring your stuff with you, you can’t sleep with your wife or your kids or your dog. My dog sleeps at the foot of my bed. I can’t imagine not having her there.”
But that’s the starting option that Colorado Springs has for the homeless, thanks to the recent addition of some 300 “low barrier” shelter beds.
“Camping on public rights of way is illegal in the city of Colorado Springs,” said Andrew Phelps, the Homelessness Prevention and Response Coordinator for the City of Colorado Springs. “CSPD is empowered to enforce the camping ban only when a shelter bed is available for the individual. Increasing our number of available low barrier shelter beds not only will save lives, but it will also allow our officers to enforce the law and protect our environment from the negative impacts of illegal camping.”
Parker objects, saying that not every homeless person can or wants to take advantage of Colorado Springs’ shelter-bed programs. She says that people with PTSD and other mental illnesses often have great difficulty living or sleeping in a crowded hall full of other people. Others are concerned about getting ill or getting infested with lice and bedbugs that are found where the homeless live in close proximity.
Still others object to the strict rules imposed by shelters that include restrictions on pets, on sleeping with one’s domestic partner, men being separated from their wives and children and the clamor and lack of safety for their property that are the compromises that must be made to accept the city’s shelter offerings.
The city and care providers are working to lower the barriers to staying in a shelter. One example is the Salvation Army’s Sierra Madre Street shelter, which has dropped the requirement of sobriety and is now focused on behavior. Other shelters offer limited accommodations for sleeping with spouses and keeping pets. The new shelter beds are part of the larger Pikes Peak Continuum of Care program to end homelessness in the Pikes Peak region.
Empathy turns to action
Parker decided that San Antonio’s Haven for Hope community, which offers single-stop service to the homeless, could be combined with the efficiencies and cost-effectiveness of tiny homes to create a community where homeless veterans could access housing and be steps away from the medical, mental health and assistance providers they need to move beyond life on the streets.
Parker formed a non-profit organization called “Meaningful Empowerment through New Development & Art” (MENDA) to sponsor her tiny-home community project, Fort HOPE, which stands for “Helping Our Patriots Elevate.”
Parker claims the cost of the proposal, including buying land, is less than $700,000 for 60 tiny homes and associated services and amenities, including among other things a boarding kennel and a detox facility that would be available to all, not just residents. Parker says according to a quote from the El Paso County Jail office, this could potentially save the city as much as $6 million per year in jail, emergency room and court diversion costs.
Government thinks big when it should think small
A $14 million 65-unit “permanent supportive housing” development with “wrap-around supportive services for residents” called Greenway Flats is in the works, according to a news release from Nor’wood Development Group, the region’s largest developer. Parker thinks she has a better idea, one that starts with Fort HOPE.
For $14 million, says Parker, more than 2,300 tiny homes could be built in small, well-designed communities that could house all of El Paso County’s homeless.
According to the January PIT count there are at least 2,209 homeless in El Paso County, most of whom are in the city. But Parker isn’t asking for that much right now. For the 60-unit veteran’s community Parker is pursuing her MENDA action plan says, “The total cost for building Fort HOPE, without any sponsors or donors is between $371,615 and $671,615 depending on the cost of the land.”
“The cost of land obviously is a factor. If the city would let us use some of their land that cost goes down,” said Parker.
The city sold a vacant parcel at 4921 Templeton Gap Road for $1 to Greccio Housing to build a 3-story 50-unit affordable senior housing development in March.
Compared to the $215,385 per person the Greenway Flats project costs, Parker says she can provide housing for much less. According to MENDA the per-person cost is between $6,193 and $11,193.
This, Parker said, would give veterans “Their own home, with a lock and kitchen and their own bathroom and shower and their stuff, their life. And then they can start building from there.”
It doesn’t end with Fort HOPE
While Fort HOPE is intended to serve homeless veterans, Parker has expansion firmly in mind.
“Once we’ve proved that this isn’t going to blow the city up and no one’s going to die, we hope to build for the rest of the homeless, either as one big community or possibly as smaller communities,” said Parker. “We’re kind of leaning more towards two separate village, one for families for kids and one for single adults just because those are two different lifestyles.”
Parker supports the city’s efforts to provide emergency shelter and outreach services but is frustrated by the seeming lack of alternatives for those who for a variety of reasons, cannot or will not use shelter beds.
“The goal is to build so there is no need for anybody to be homeless. Where they can come and have affordable rent, or they can work towards paying rent if they are not able to handle normal jobs,” said Parker. “They are not lazy, there are some who just can’t stand being in a room with a bunch of other people because they’ve had bad experiences.”