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Homeless complex battle goes to City Council


The David and Goliath-style tug-of-war over the future of the Mill Street neighborhood south of downtown is headed to the City Council to determine whether a $6 million complex of homeless services can be built.

The massive, 50,000-square-foot facility, was overwhelmingly rejected by the Colorado Springs Planning Commission in August. Then, commissioners argued that the facility was inappropriate and would overwhelm the five-block neighborhood, one of the few working-class neighborhoods left in the city.

However, the local philanthropic El Pomar Foundation, which has pledged $5 million and the Red Cross, which is pushing for the complex, have appealed the measure to the City Council. The elected body will consider the matter during next Tuesday's meeting at City Hall.

If Council reverses the planning commission's denial, the resulting 3.4-acre "campus" would house a coalition of homeless services, including a 400-bed shelter, a soup kitchen feeding 500 to 700 people daily, a health clinic and an array of drop-in services and amenities.

Failed mediation efforts

The neighbors say, however, that the homeless mall envisioned by Red Cross and El Pomar would mean hundreds of down-and-out people roaming through their neighborhood daily. They want the soup kitchen and the 100-bed shelter for single men eliminated from the site plan.

"The soup kitchen alone would bring 500 to 700 people into our neighborhood every day," said Mill Street resident Will Robinson. "If feeding the homeless is really the goal, wouldn't it make more sense to put smaller-scale soup kitchens in four or five different neighborhoods scattered around town?"

On Sept. 22, a mediation effort to get the two sides to agree on the scope of the project failed when El Pomar and the Red Cross rejected a proposal by shelter opponents to participate in a town meeting to publicly discuss the issue.

Citing the "extraordinary lengths" to which they'd gone in addressing neighborhood concerns, representatives from El Pomar and the Red Cross steadfastly argued that the project must be built in its entirety in the proposed location.

After the planning commission's rejection, El Pomar president Thayer Tutt initially threatened to back out of the project altogether.

"There's been more than ample discussion," said project manager Debbie Mitguard. "At this point, we'd rather take our case directly to City Council."

But opponents say that lack of public discussion is at the heart of the problem. "El Pomar and Red Cross have been deciding things in secret and then trying to sell their decisions to the neighbors," said longtime homeless advocate Matt Parkhouse. "The general public hasn't been a part of the decision-making."

All or nothing

Both sides attribute hidden agendas to the other.

Mill Street neighbors allege that the real motive behind putting a centralized complex in their working-class neighborhood is that it would keep the homeless away from downtown streets and businesses.

The Council of Neighborhood Organizations (CONO), which represents 13,500 homeowners in 45 neighborhood associations, opposes the centralized, one-stop homeless facility as well.

"Centralization won't provide better service to the homeless," said CONO president Jan Doran, "but it will destroy the Mill Street neighborhood."

El Pomar president Tutt countered by noting that "Red Cross, Catholic Charities, Ecumenical Services and the Community Health Center all favor consolidation of services and we support them."

"It's all or nothing." Tutt said. "There are a lot of things going on beneath the surface of this thing. CONO is thinking that if they beat us (El Pomar) here, they'll be able to push City Council around in other community conflicts, too. If CONO wins this, no neighborhood in town will accept a homeless shelter."

Tutt places blame for the present impasse on the Mill Street supporters, whom he characterizes as "a coalition of real-estate investors and homeowner groups egging on a handful of residents."

Though the current shelter is far from being filled to capacity, during her presentation before the planning commission, project manager Mitguard argued the large facility is needed to plan for the future of homelessness.

"They know darn well that the 10,000-square-foot shelter they're suggesting as a compromise won't fly," said Tutt of the project's opponents. "The present shelter is 30,000 square feet, and the homeless population is going to grow, just like the rest of the city."

Tutt and Mitgaurd say that proponents have no contingency plan in store if Council nixes the project Tuesday.

Up for grabs

Several council members said they have no idea how the vote will go on Tuesday.

"We were advised by legal staff that anyone discussing the matter before it goes before Council will be disqualified from voting, so none of us have any idea what the others are thinking," said councilwoman Judy Noyes. "Personally, I haven't made up my mind yet."

Councilman Richard Skorman says he's been exploring models of homeless services used in other cities, and councilman Ted Eastburn says he will put what's best for the homeless before what's best for the providers.

"Proponents are going to have to convince me that this project is to the distinct advantage of the service users," said Eastburn. "This isn't about what's most advantageous for the providers."

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