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"It's a tough place to live," Jeannine Holt says, standing in the men's side of the Red Cross Emergency Shelter on Sierra Madre Street.

The army-style cots are uncomfortable, and there's no privacy. Sections of 22 cots are separated only by shoulder-height walls, and very often, an assortment of residents, from children to elderly sleep in close quarters.

"At night, people are coughing, children are crying," Holt noted. "People don't sleep that much here."

The new homeless complex would not answer all these problems, but it would help, she said, offering more privacy to those working hard to get off the streets and addressing many of the problems now faced by caseworkers and the homeless at the Red Cross shelter.

The new facility would also consolidate services under one roof so homeless people would not have to walk, or get bussed all over town to be fed, get counseling, or look for work.

"A lot of times when people come in here, they're already at their wit's end," said Red Cross director Deb Mitguard. "The fact that services are spread all over the city adds just another barrier to people coming in here and getting help."

The single location would also help agency people communicate more regularly about specific cases and general issues, she said.

The plan would also allow agencies to eliminate redundant services. The city's main soup kitchen, now at Bijou Street's Marian House, would provide meals both to homeless people still on the street, as well as those enrolled at the Red Cross shelter. That means the shelter can eliminate its kitchen facility, Mitguard said.

At the same time, said Gail Dusing, executive director of Catholic Charities, which runs the soup kitchen, it's a way to make the most of needed improvements.

"We really need to upgrade our facilities, not just for volunteers and staff but those who come to have a better sense of dignity and be served in a decent facility," Dusing said, noting that the current building is cramped, and has inadequate kitchen space.

It was the soup kitchen expansion that prompted the local drive for consolidated homeless services almost five years ago.

"I do think it could help," said Kim Spence, a homeless woman who has three kids in the Red Cross shelter. "Because a lot of people do not have transportation [to get to various services]."

The new Montgomery Community Center would also allow the agency to separate populations -- families like Spence's from those who just drop in for the night -- that currently mix at the shelter.

In general, said Paula Wright, who oversees homeless outreach for Pikes Peak Mental Health Services, a partner in the complex, the new facility will help social workers reach those who need aid.

"I think the benefit in terms of psychological services is that it might make services more accessible to people," she said. "Right now, we're spending a lot of time just tracking people down.

And frequently, people with mental health needs tend to neglect physical health. So, having the providers right there could give better support.

Potential pitfalls

But in all the press the new shelter has received in recent months, any mention of the potential downsides of the one-stop-shop approach has been strikingly absent from public debate.

A trend sweeping through many of America's larger cities in recent years, the homeless campus idea has become a way both to avoid potential litigation, make service delivery more efficient and steer the homeless from downtown redevelopment areas.

The trend has been embraced by the Housing and Urban Development Department, which has poured millions into such campus development efforts.

"By minimizing duplication of services and reducing program gaps, this cooperative effort provides the most effective help possible and stretches the limited available resources," said a December 1996 report from HUD.

But homeless providers locally and nationally are not unanimous in their support, and there's little data to show that homeless campuses are better at getting homeless people off the streets than smaller services spread through a community.

One of the few studies that is available was conducted by the Center for Poverty Solutions in Baltimore, Maryland, which visited nine homeless campuses around the United States.

Ultimately, theirs wasn't a very favorable review. "Homeless campuses are not a sound investment [for Baltimore] if the expected return is to provide homeless people with a lasting alternative to the street," concluded the 1998 study, titled "Helping People off the Streets, Real Solutions to Urban Homelessness."

"Regardless of the quality of services," the authors concluded, "... putting that many people together in a closed community creates an environment which feels more like a warehouse for humans than it does a supportive environment designed to help people confront their challenges."

One local housing activist, Matt Parkhouse, who has worked with area homeless for 20 years, likens such projects to the Pentagon spending $700 on a hammer.

The $6 million targeted for the Montgomery Center would be better spent, he argues, boosting services in the community that are now lacking: affordable and transitional housing, drug and alcohol treatment, and shelter options for those who don't fit in at the strict Red Cross facility.

"There's just not a lot of information out there that supports the homeless campus idea," Parkhouse said.

And here in Colorado Springs, there are additional concerns.

One key flash point, for example, is the fact that the Red Cross -- the lead agency in the new Montgomery Center -- has a reputation for having strict rules at its Sierra Madre shelter. Homeless people can be restricted from the facility if they show up drunk, for example.

"What is needed is a place with some standards and expectation of behavior, but where someone can screw up one day and be welcome the next," said Parkhouse, noting that not everyone gets sober on the first try.

"A new phenomenon"

Mitguard concedes there have been few studies on the campus approach. "It's a relatively new phenomenon, so there isn't much data," said Mitguard, who has visited a homeless campus in San Diego. "But we're also basing this on a lot of experience of working with homeless in this community."

Mitguard said agencies are also working hard to address potential problems. The soup kitchen, for example, will be built on the opposite side of the building from the shelter component so the populations will mix as little as possible.

Equally important, she said, the shelter will be doing more street outreach, trying to improve what she concedes is "a reputation problem" of the shelter among some homeless. Among other things, the Red Cross will begin using more of an incentive-based approach to behavior problems, rather than a punitive one, she said.

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