(Editor’s note: This is third in a series around homelessness in Colorado Springs. The first, on a proposed tiny home village for veterans is here. The second, on the clearing of the Shooks Run homeless camp is here.)
Colorado Springs–As 150 volunteers with the Colorado Springs Rescue Mission served 678 meals to the homeless and needy at the City Auditorium on Christmas Eve, police continued their enforcement sweeps against illegal camping.
As part of the city’s Homelessness Response Action Plan, the city worked with service providers, allocating $500,000 in taxpayer funds to add 300 new beds to the stock of available shelter beds.
The completion of this goal in late November gave the Colorado Springs Police Department (CSPD) authority to enforce camping bans. Previously, officers could not force people from their camping spots due to court rulings saying that the city had to first provide them with a place to stay.
Many of the homeless campers displaced from camps near South Shook’s Run Park and Royer St. cleared out on Dec. 11 and Dec. 17 moved south along Fountain Creek, returning to areas along the Pikes Peak Greenway trail previously cleared by police after the passage of an ordinance prohibiting camping within 100 feet of a waterway on Oct. 22.
Beginning after Christmas the CSPD’s Homeless Outreach Team (HOT Team) began working its way north along the trail from Janitell Drive towards South Tejon.
Homeless people report the police have been sweeping the trail about every other day, posting notices requiring campers to immediately vacate the area and warning that items left behind will be disposed of.
The ordinance against camping near streams requires that before a citation can be issued, the police must first notify the individual that camping is prohibited.
Since the clearing of the homeless camps, the Springs Rescue Mission at 5 Las Vegas St. has seen an uptick in new intakes of about 95 clients.
In a statement to Complete Colorado, Matt Stickel, Integrated Marketing Director at the Springs Rescue Mission said, “Since we opened 150 additional beds in our entry shelter at the beginning of November, we’ve definitely seen an increase in the number of people finding shelter every night. We recently had 371 men and women stay warm and safe overnight in our shelters. Without the 150 additional beds, we would have had to turn at least 71 individuals away.”
Another part of the city’s plan is to try to unclog the court system. The glut of nuisance crimes like trespassing, illegal camping and loitering often remain open because fines cannot be paid.
“These cases not only tie up our Municipal Court system, but also act as a barrier to employment and housing for those ready to escape homelessness,” says the plan. The city plans to create a Homeless Outreach Court to create a “community-centric approach to criminal justice” by involving nonprofit agencies to individually address the needs of the homeless.
Many of the displaced campers suffer from mental illnesses and substance abuse problems, making it difficult to tolerate the close quarters of a shelter. This leaves the police HOT Team trying to find dispersed campers, some of whom go to great lengths to avoid detection. Some have been found sleeping in people’s back yards on the west side of the city.
Solutions for serving this group of people who flatly refuse to go to shelters are still a long way off but include efforts to provide secure storage for their personal property to alleviate the problem of theft and supportive services to get them into more permanent housing.
A “homeless to work” component of the plan suggests a program to employ the homeless to clean up trash in parks and along trails. The city will be setting up a competitive request for proposal process to manage this program.
Addressing the issue of homeless families with children, the city acknowledges that many homeless families hide from efforts by the city to count them, fearful that their homelessness might cause the family to be broken up. Some of these families are living in vehicles and double-bunking with other families in motels and many are living outside the city in El Paso County.
The city, using data collected by school districts, estimates that there were more than 1,000 school-age students experiencing homelessness as of the January 2018 Point in Time homeless count.
The plan also sets in motion the development of a comprehensive housing plan for 2019 that will “guide the way towards ensuring that there is sufficient housing for all in Colorado Springs.” Colorado Springs does not have enough affordable housing units for those earning less than 30 percent of the median income.
The goal for 2019 is to add 20 single-occupancy family emergency shelter units and 40 new transitional housing units in 2020.
In his State of the City address Mayor John Suthers said, “I am pleased to report that 485 affordable units have recently been completed or soon will be.” This includes the $14 million Greenway Flats project on the Springs Rescue Mission campus that will provide 65 “permanent supportive housing units” to the chronically homeless.
Mayor Suthers also said, “I would suggest we make it a community goal to build, preserve and create opportunities to purchase an average of 1,000 affordable units per year over the next five years.”