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Local women, kids face housing shortage

Uncounted, unhoused

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Janet Boston found support through Mary’s Home. - COURTESY MARY’S HOME AND NEW LIFE CHURCH
  • Courtesy Mary’s Home and New Life Church
  • Janet Boston found support through Mary’s Home.
While the public face of homelessness is often that of a middle-aged or elderly man living outside, hundreds of women and children are also feeling the effects of a growing crisis in El Paso County.

“So much of the story of homelessness has been focused on men ... and so when we started to build our shelter, that seemed to be the primary spot to go and that’s what the city needed,” says Travis Williams, chief development officer at Springs Rescue Mission. “As soon as we opened up the shelters, we recognized there’s such a need for women in shelter. In fact, our shelter, since we’ve opened it, has specifically for women been nearly full ever since day one.”

This January, volunteers conducting the county’s annual Point-in-Time (PIT) homeless count surveyed 550 people experiencing homelessness who identified as female. But that survey is known to be an undercount, and families with young children “will often hide their homelessness out of embarrassment or fear of bullying or being reported to Child Protective Services,” the report points out.

Some homeless service providers worry that the recent closure of Ecumenical Social Ministries’ WISH House, which provided transitional housing for up to 16 single women — coupled with the fact that the The Salvation Army Shelter & Services at RJ Montgomery will no longer require clients to be sober — could mean more women won’t have a place to stay this winter, or will avoid shelters because they feel unsafe.

And while this year’s PIT only counted nine unsheltered children, different data collected by school districts shows 449 families and 1,117 students without permanent housing. This data includes children who are staying temporarily with friends or relatives, those “hidden” from homeless counts.

Janet Boston, now 31, and two of her young children once were part of the latter statistic. Around two years ago, Boston moved from a domestic violence shelter in New Jersey to live with her sister in Colorado Springs. An abusive relationship had left her with a broken eye socket, two miscarriages, and scars and burn marks all over her body.

Boston was ready for a new start. But she soon found her sister was “living the same lie” that she had been, and that it wasn’t a good environment in which to raise her children. “I knew I needed to get out of her house as soon as possible,” says Boston, who was pregnant with her third child at the time.

Boston found help through Mary’s Home, a program out of Dream Centers, a Christian nonprofit led by CEO Matthew Ayers, a pastor at New Life Church. Mary’s Home provides furnished apartments for up to 12 women experiencing homelessness or leaving domestic violence and their young children, accompanied by extensive wraparound services and the mandatory nine-month Mary’s Home Academy program. Women can remain at Mary’s Home for up to five years, and can receive schooling assistance.

New construction begun this month will free up three additional apartment units for moms and kids. But the added space won’t be enough to fill the population’s need for housing. Brenda Rogers, the executive director of Dream Centers, says the nonprofit turns away 400 moms a year, many with stories like Boston’s.

“We hear these horrendous stories and our hearts break, and we long to have sufficient space,” Rogers said at an event Sept. 13 announcing the construction of two new buildings. “We dream that families will become healthy and productive citizens and they will fulfill their God-given purpose in our city.”

The organization’s hope is to have 60 apartment units by 2023 — a lofty goal, but one they may reach given the backing of evangelical powerhouse New Life Church, the nonprofit’s largest donor.

However, the services that Mary’s Home offers aren’t suited to everyone. Though Boston says the focus on God led her out of crisis, those who lack or have different religious beliefs might not find that aspect appealing. Oddly, Ayers says the women “can attend but aren’t required to participate” in religious activities, but Boston says they are required to attend Bible studies and church.

Also, women cannot have a recent history of severe behavioral issues, criminal activity or substance use disorders.

For homeless women who are trying to overcome addiction, and don’t have children or don’t have custody of them, one new option is Project Detour, a recovery program developed by the Community Health Partnership in response to the opioid crisis in El Paso County.

“Different people in the community were concerned about the cycling of clients in and out of emergency rooms, jail and trying to break that cycle. And rather than incarcerating people who have substance use disorders, finding a way to get them into treatment,” says Mary Steiner, CHP’s community 
program manager.

Funded by a $250,000 national grant with matching funds from Penrose-St. Francis Health Services, the program houses up to 12 single women in a building next to Springs Rescue Mission. Participants must be homeless or at risk of being homeless, involved in criminal justice and have a substance use disorder.

The program, managed mostly by Homeward Pikes Peak, offers up to 12 months of recovery assistance that includes medication-assisted treatment, counseling, life skills training, employment assistance and case management. The women “work and engage in productive activities” for at least 29 hours a week, and must follow house rules.

Referrals come from the 4th Judicial District’s Recovery Court, a probation supervision program that works with offenders whose convictions are motivated by addiction. But participation has to be voluntary, Steiner says.

The program was launched in March and is funded through next August. So far, 15 women have participated, with 10 currently in the program. Three were expelled, and one has transitioned to stable housing and regained custody of her child, says case manager Novalie Force.

Data provided by Steiner shows that most of the women were overcoming opioid addictions. El Paso County saw the effects of a crisis sweeping the nation, with 120 people dying of opioid overdoses in 2016 — almost double the number of deaths in 2013. Last year saw a slight decrease, with 102 opioid deaths.

More women are going to prison, too. A September report from the American Civil Liberties Union found that the total number of female prisoners in Colorado increased 58 percent between 2000 and 2018, more than twice the rate for men. The same report found that in 2016, felony drug possession convictions increased by 24 percent for women, compared to 17 percent overall.

Programs like Project Detour hope to prevent recidivism and keep people out of the state’s overburdened criminal justice system.

Another nonprofit hoping to do the same is Ithaka Land Trust, which provides transitional and permanent housing for both men and women. Many of the women, says transitional specialist Kallie Royal, are released on parole and have nowhere to live.

But the organization has 167 people on the wait list for permanent and transitional housing. The backlog can sometimes mean women who would otherwise be able to leave the criminal justice system have to remain in jail or community corrections.

It also means more women will need emergency housing this winter. The addition of 370 low-barrier shelter beds between Springs Rescue Mission and the Salvation Army should help.

But the Salvation Army’s switch to low-barrier worries some people she works with, Royal says. She says that’s because those who’ve worked hard to get sober may have to be surrounded by others who are using drugs or have them available.

And for women, drug use often goes hand-in-hand with trauma.

“We’ve had several women on our transitional wait list who have been in a sexual or domestic violence situation where they’ve also been forced to or had regular access to drugs,” says Anjuli Kapoor, Ithaka’s executive director. “They can’t even begin to work on sobriety or health if they’re not out of that physical situation.”

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