A woman unpacks her belongings for the night while settling in on her sleeping mat Thursday at the Springs Rescue Mission. The nonprofit added space for 100 people at it’s campus at 5 W. Las Vegas St. as a stop gap measure until it opens a larger, more permanent shelter Monday, Nov. 1 2018 expansion in December. Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette
Tempers flared at a Colorado Springs town hall Thursday night amid concerns that the city isn’t addressing homelessness fast enough — particularly when it comes to helping families.
Roughly 100 people packed the third of six meetings planned to gather input on the city’s latest eight-point action plan to address homelessness announced in October. Several people experiencing homelessness begged Colorado Springs officials at the town hall to create more affordable housing and increase services for families living in their cars, motels or on the streets
Since the plan’s release, criticism has mounted that it ignores families experiencing homelessness in favor of helping another large, more visible demographic: Men and women without children who sleep outside on sidewalks or in creekside camps.
One woman broke into tears while describing the difficulty she had finding a place for her and her four children to live in Colorado Springs after fleeing domestic violence in another state.
“I fled for my life, and the safety of my children, and I have no place to go because I decided to flee,” said the woman, who is staying in a hotel. “I’m calling shelters. I’m calling places. I’m calling, and they have nothing.”
City Council President Richard Skorman lamented that the issue of homelessness is too complex to be solved overnight, adding the city is doing all it can.
Andrew Phelps, the city’s homelessness prevention and response coordinator, voiced empathy for people living outside. A former outreach caseworker focused on housing military veterans, Phelps said nonprofits across the city are working on the issue.
“It was tough to hear. There’s a lot of anger in our community about — not only just the impact of homelessness on our environment — but there’s a lot of people in our community who are struggling, and they’re upset,” Phelps said. “And I’m upset right there with them, and I’m concerned right there with them.
“I understand the anxiety and the impatience on how we can’t get this stuff done soon enough. I agree, but we’re trying the best we can.”
The city’s plan calls for creating a detailed affordable housing strategy next year. It also aims to create 370 more “low barrier” shelter beds, where admission is based on behavior, not sobriety. Much of that extra shelter space opened on Nov. 1, and dozens of beds have gone unused in recent weeks.
The plan’s other steps include expanded use of the city’s HelpCOS.org website, the creation of a “homeless court” that would offer alternatives to fines or jail for many municipal offenses, and the hiring of more code enforcement officers to clean up illegal camps. The city also plans to help create a fund to house homeless military veterans, and create HelpCOS Ambassador Teams to do outreach, as well as helping tourists downtown and in Old Colorado City.
The deadline for completing those initiatives is Dec. 31, 2019.
Phelps and Skorman were often yelled at during the meeting, and at least one person was asked by Skorman to leave, though she was ultimately allowed to stay.
The residents’ overarching plea: Do more to create additional affordable housing, which remains a tough find in the Pikes Peak region’s white-hot rental market. Some people urged the city to offer more tax incentives for developers to build such units.
Several people criticized tax rebates sought by local leaders and granted by state officials for the creation of the downtown U.S. Olympic Museum, while housing remained such a critical need. They also criticized what they saw as too much talking, and not enough action, on the part of city officials when it came to creating more housing.
“We will have a museum built before the discussions are done,” said Walter Palmer, 68, a Colorado Springs retiree.
Multiple Colorado Springs nonprofits have applied for low-income housing tax credits through the Colorado Housing and Finance Authority, and more than 100 apartments are slated for construction that will specifically cater to people experiencing homelessness. An additional 65 apartments are planned for people earning between one-third and one-half of El Paso County’s area median income.
Still, many people said that’s hardly enough.
Thomas Villarreal, 57, applauded the city for creating more shelter beds. But he said those shelters would be “a revolving door that’s never going to end” without more affordable housing. He said his landlord recently increased his rent from $540 to $800 — a figure far closer to the going market rate, but also far beyond his means. His Social Security check, for example, totals $800.
“We need to put a rush on” adding affordable housing, Villarreal said.