- Courtesy CAPS Program
- Seasonal ambassadors roam downtown.
“They’re kind of our helpers for the police department, because they’re out there, they’re visible, they’re talking to people, and they’re just very public,” says Stephanie Evitt, volunteer coordinator for the city’s Community Advancing Public Safety Program (CAPS), which includes the 26 CAPS Volunteer Ambassadors greeting visitors on Fridays and Saturdays through Dec. 22.
Evitt says the volunteers mainly aim to welcome shoppers and tourists, and provide helpful information. But they’re also specially trained to report suspicious activity to the police.
Another benefit? The CAPS ambassadors help visitors feel less uncomfortable around a growing population of people experiencing homelessness, says Laurel Prud’homme, vice president of communications for the Downtown Partnership.
“That has always been a purpose of the program,” Prud’homme says. “And truthfully, when people see [ambassadors] present, it does help them feel comfortable, and so it’s certainly one of the many benefits that they provide.”
While homelessness has long been more visible downtown than in some other areas of Colorado Springs, the number of unhoused, like the rest of the city’s population, is growing. City officials have struggled in recent years to find a balance between making downtown attractive to shoppers and diners and providing resources for those who need them. (Case in point: The controversial “sit-lie” ordinance that makes it illegal to sit on curbs and sidewalks downtown.)
Volunteers conducting El Paso County’s annual Point-in-Time homeless count in January 2018 found that the number of homeless people without shelter increased by 11 percent from 2017, and all of the shelter beds without barriers to entry (i.e., sobriety requirements) were filled.
The city responded this year by making low-barrier shelter beds its first priority in addressing homelessness. Springs Rescue Mission will have 150 new beds open by the end of the season, and the Salvation Army remains in the process of transitioning to a low-barrier shelter, bringing the total number of new low-barrier beds this season to 370.
The police department will also have additional officers policing downtown and the Westside during the holiday season, says police spokesperson Lt. Howard Black. But he says that’s not necessarily due to a documented spike in crime during the holidays.
“Whenever you have more people coming into an area,” he says, “there is that possibility of increased criminal activity, so it is just having an appropriate number of officers with the influx of people that come into the downtown area and the Westside.”
While the police department’s Homeless Outreach Team helps connect homeless people with resources, Evitt says the CAPS ambassadors aren’t trained to provide outreach.
“As far as the homeless would go, they would contact the police if there was somebody who needed help,” she says. “But they’re not going to necessarily approach the homeless... Their purpose is more for the shoppers and the diners and the people who are out and about during the holiday season.”
Funding for the CAPS program, which also coordinates volunteers in a number of roles supporting public safety agencies, comes from the police and fire department annual operating budgets, says program administrator Jean Kraus.
The city’s recently introduced Homelessness Action Plan also proposes adding a “HelpCOS ambassador team” as one of eight steps to address homelessness. Andrew Phelps, the city’s homelessness prevention and response coordinator, says the program could be volunteer-based, contract-based or a mix of both.
Such a team would consist of people who greet visitors in public spaces, providing maps and answering questions — much like the CAPS volunteers — but these ambassadors would also help connect people experiencing homelessness with shelters and services.