Mayor John Suthers announces the city's plan to fight homelessness.
An assortment of cold city officials and nonprofit workers lined up underneath a highway-side billboard Oct. 9 to announce Colorado Springs' new Homelessness Action Plan. On the barely-above-freezing Tuesday, the timing couldn't have been better.
"The change in the weather highlights the ongoing need in our community for low-barrier shelter beds," Suthers said.
The city's action plan outlines eight steps to keep people experiencing homelessness out of the cold:
1. Continue "educating the public" via the HelpCOS campaign.
Advertising for the HelpCOS fundraising campaign, which the city launched May 31 in partnership with Pikes Peak United Way, has until now consisted mainly of signs posted near locations frequented by panhandlers. The signs tell commuters that "Handouts Don't Help" and encourage them to instead donate spare change to HelpCOS.org for the benefit of local nonprofits fighting homelessness. One hundred percent of donations will now benefit the expansion of low-barrier shelter facilities at Springs Rescue Mission and the Salvation Army, Mayor John Suthers said.
Lamar Advertising has donated four billboards to promote the campaign, the first of which was unveiled at the Oct. 9 event.
The city does not have an update on donations through HelpCOS, says Andrew Phelps, the city's homelessness prevention and response coordinator.
"We do expect that donations will increase as publicity increases, because we live in a very giving community," he says. (You can donate by texting "HelpCOS" to 667873.)
2. Add an additional 370 low-barrier shelter beds.
Hours after the Homelessness Action Plan was released to the public, City Council voted to approve $500,000 to help fund 370 low-barrier shelter beds at Springs Rescue Mission and the Salvation Army, both religious nonprofits. The rest of the funding for the beds will come from grants and donations.
Of those beds, 120 will come online at the Salvation Army and 100 at Springs Rescue Mission in November, Phelps says. The remaining beds will be available at the turn of the year.
Springs Rescue Mission CEO Larry Yonkers said his shelter had its first full-capacity night of the year on Oct. 8.
"This can't happen fast enough," Yonkers said, adding that Springs Rescue Mission also hoped to expand its kitchen and welcome center to accommodate more clients.
3. Implement a Homeless Outreach Court.
People experiencing homelessness often can't pay fines for crimes and misdemeanors often committed as a result of their circumstances — trapping many in the criminal justice system
. The idea of a Homeless Outreach Court, according to the city's action plan, is to connect people with "case managers who can help guide them to the services they need" instead of charging them money that won't be paid. "By doing so, our Homeless Outreach Court will address the root causes of the offending behavior and empower individuals to take concrete steps to move out of homelessness," the plan says.
4. Establish a veteran housing incentive fund.
"This is the least that we can do for those who have served our nation," Phelps said.
The fund will encourage more landlords to rent to veterans who get vouchers through the HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) Program, a joint program between the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. HUD recently announced $782,000 in additional funding for Colorado veterans.
"What often happens in our community is a homeless veteran receives a HUD-VASH voucher for an amount that is below a market-rate rent for a one-bedroom apartment," Phelps said. "So this fund will make up the difference and hopefully incentivize landlords to rent to homeless veterans with these HUD-VASH vouchers."
5. Develop a Comprehensive Affordable Housing plan.
In his State of the City speech
last month, Suthers suggested Colorado Springs "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." That ambitious goal will be met in part by incentivizing private developers, he said.
The city's Homelessness Action Plan asserts that the city will begin developing a plan to address the affordable housing shortage next year. Nonprofit workers frequently cite the shortage as a contributing factor to homelessness: A 2014 Affordable Housing Needs Assessment by the city of Colorado Springs and El Paso County predicted a deficit of 26,000 available affordable units by 2019 for households making up to 120 percent of the area median income.
6. Support funding for a homeless work program with area nonprofit(s).
Programs like Albuquerque's "There's a Better Way"
employ people experiencing homelessness on a day-to-day basis, doing jobs like picking up trash. The city's new plan says Colorado Springs will "investigate the feasibility" of such a program "via a competitive RFP process." Ideally, the plan says, the program would be within an existing local nonprofit and would involve the cleanup of parks, trails and illegal campsites. Funding is yet to be determined.
7. Add Neighborhood Services staff to aid in cleaning up illegal camps.
The mayor's proposed budget
calls for hiring three full-time Neighborhood Services employees to work with the Colorado Springs Police Department's Homeless Outreach Team and handle camp cleanup. Two will be maintenance technicians solely responsible for cleaning up vacated homeless camps, and one will be a senior technician who can assist with larger cleanups or facilitate other needs identified by the HOT team. The proposed budget calls for $171,000 to fund salaries, benefits and overhead, city spokesperson Jamie Fabos says.
8. Develop "HelpCOS Ambassador Team" for downtown and Old Colorado City areas.
Such a team would consist of people who greet visitors in public spaces, providing maps and answering questions. The "ambassadors" would also help connect people experiencing homelessness with shelters and services.
The Homelessness Action Plan points to the San Antonio Centro Ambassadors as an example. According to the plan, San Antonio, Texas, has 85 ambassadors who "work every day to keep the vibe alive and make San Antonio 'The Friendliest City in America.'" Phelps says Colorado Springs probably won't need that many ambassadors.
The program could be volunteer-based, contract-based or a mix of both, Phelps says, adding that the city is getting quotes from Block by Block, a company that provides ambassador services for downtown districts around the country.
The City of Colorado Springs and Council President Richard Skorman will host three town halls to gather public input on the plan. They are:
• Oct. 17 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at the Westside Community Center, 1628 W Bijou St.
• Oct. 25 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at City Council Chambers, 107 N. Nevada Ave.
• A third November event to be scheduled later