- Nat Stein
- Salvation Army volunteers serve hot food to shelter guests.
The city’s planners and developers field complaints for all sorts of projects, but few generate the resistance caused by the prospect of a “human services shelter.” On Jan. 3, the Downtown Review Board got an earful about the Salvation Army’s emergency warming shelter, located in southeast downtown.
This will be the third winter in recent years that the Salvation Army opened its two-story, 40,000 square-foot building at 505 S. Weber St. as respite for unsheltered residents who have nowhere else to go. (The Springs Rescue Mission, a low-barrier shelter nearby, is full to the brim and R.J. Montgomery, also operated by the Salvation Army, has begun catering to families with children.)
According to official counts, there’s 457 people living without shelter in Colorado Springs, but outreach workers believe there’s actually many more. Already, at least five people have died from exposure this winter, with nighttime temperatures consistently falling below freezing.
The need for emergency shelter is undisputed. But the timing and location of this shelter opening irritated nearby residents and business owners who say they were promised the shelter wouldn’t reopen, weren’t given enough advance notice that it was, and that it will negatively impact the use, value and security of their nearby properties.
The Lowell neighborhood, named after Lowell Elementary School, was considered “blighted” after the school closed in the early 1980s, earning it an urban renewal designation that lasted through 2013. During that time, old Victorians were razed, clearing about 60 acres of land that, when a public-private project fell through, sat idle. After some fits and starts, the land was developed into dense housing, including condos, apartments and townhomes. The old school was converted to office space. There’s a senior living facility and some commercial property, too.
While the new development is higher-end, this section of southeast downtown is also characterized by big warehouses, vacant land, railroad tracks and its proximity to South Nevada Avenue — a commercial strip known for hosting many of the city’s more desperate residents, who camp, live in cheap motels, or head to the nearby Springs Rescue Mission.
Point being, the Lowell neighborhood hosts the homeless whether the Salvation Army’s warming shelter is open or not. Thus, the Downtown Review Board decided that opening the shelter doesn’t “substantially injure” the neighborhood because, as board member Aaron Briggs put it, “having large numbers of people living outside in Colorado Springs is reaching crisis level and that’s tough on a lot of business owners and residents … so actually offering safety and predictability by giving people some option of not sleeping outside actually improves the values and qualities of downtown.”
"I know how friggin’ cold it gets and I don’t want anybody dying on my friggin’ sidewalk." click to tweetOne Lowell resident who spoke in opposition at the hearing was Christian Reed. He complained about trespassing and public defecation and said he’s seen homeless people use the outlet in the private park funded by his HOA to charge their phones. “[The shelter reopening] is going to bring more of these problems,” he said, with exasperation in his voice. “Why [doesn’t the Salvation Army] move it somewhere else? Anyone here on the board want it in your neighborhood? Why don’t we move it up to Briargate? Would they like having homeless people up there? I don’t think anyone wants this in their neighborhood.”
Reed said he was speaking on behalf of three families, and another three opponents spoke on behalf of Water Works Car Wash & Detail Center. At least one board member took that to mean the neighborhood is more or less resolved in opposition. But one neighbor, the president of the Poet Lofts Condominium Owners’ Association, Chris Cipoletti, resisted such a stark characterization. “I don’t like the categories we’ve created,” he said. “It makes it seem like those of us living in the neighborhood want to see people die on the streets and that is absolutely not what any of us want… I’m in favor of opening the shelter, but I’m opposed to the process we’ve gone through to get here.”
The city planning department notified nearby residents of the application in November and held an informational meeting in November.
Without the exact count handy, urban planning manager Ryan Tefertiller says this application got more public input than average, but less than other feather-rufflers. The stance of those commenting was “fairly split” with some being “hard to categorize,” he said. “Absolutely we value the comments we get, especially when they provide facts or information [that] weren’t relayed in the application,” Tefertiller told the Indy after the hearing. “The most vocal folks are going to be opposed, but we have to remember the silent majority may be in support or don’t care that much so they just don’t weigh in.”
Indeed, the shelter’s most immediate neighbor was silent throughout the process. Ace’s Auto Engine Supply and Repair, located just feet to the south of the shelter, is run by Ron Gress. When the shelter last operated, in the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons, Gress says he often had to clean up after the shelter’s guests. They used his bathroom all the time, loitered on the sidewalk and stashed their stuff in and around his cars. And, yeah, he says, he even shoveled poop. “It was a pain,” Gress recalls. “But, of course I understand they’ve got to open [the shelter] up.”
After a moment he adds, “Look, I’ve been there, OK? Been on the street three times. Spent one hard winter out there in ’84-’85 when I was young. Had no choice. So, I mean, I know how friggin’ cold it gets and I don’t want anybody dying on my friggin’ sidewalk. So, we’ll see. May not be quite so bad.”