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Study links homeless to affordable housing crisis


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According to the recently published "Colorado Springs Homeless Survey," the homeless population of this town is a lot bigger than thought, and it could easily get a lot bigger.

The $30,000 study was paid for by federal grant money and conducted this past March by BBC Research & Consulting, the Denver-based firm that conducted an affordable housing study for the city last year.

But the results, to now, have largely been used to verify the need for the new homeless services complex, the Montgomery Center, not to identify the real problem, argue some homeless advocates.

Research included personal surveys of homeless people at 19 sites around town and a telephone survey of 100 households whose income is half or less the Colorado Springs median. In all, 499 people were surveyed.

The study concludes that the number of homeless in Colorado Springs has jumped from around 364 people in 1995 to around 853 at present -- an increase of 234 percent -- and that an additional 1,204 people verge on homelessness.

Valorie Jordan of Community Development says the study was commissioned to count the homeless, learn their chief characteristics and determine their needs.

The media, however, has ignored one of the study's most striking findings: Relatively few of this town's homeless fit the stereotype of the bleary-eyed derelict staggering in alleys and sleeping under bridges.

The study learned, for example, that:

One-third of this city's homeless hold down full-time jobs.

More than one-third of Colorado Springs' homeless are families.

Sixty-four percent have some college or vocational training and nearly two-thirds have a high school degree or GED.

Two-thirds are trying to find permanent housing.

Eighty percent attribute their homelessness to this city's lack of affordable housing.

"This suggests the extent to which we're all 'at risk,'" observed Matt Parkhouse, a frontline volunteer for numerous charitable agencies that serve this city's low-income and homeless. "The wrong set of circumstances or personal choices could land most any of us on the street."

Palace for the homeless

The report has evoked conflicting interpretations by this city's homeless advocates and service providers

Red Cross and the El Pomar Foundation argue that the study underscores how badly Colorado Springs needs the $6 million Montgomery Center proposed for the Mill Street neighborhood just south of downtown.

The homeless center would consolidate a 400-bed shelter, soup kitchen, health clinic, drop-in services and other amenities on a 3.8-acre campus.

Some of the city's most respected homeless advocates and long-time volunteers insist, however, that the study argues against the center, not for it.

The facility wouldn't provide a single service that's not already available, they say. Meanwhile, the Red Cross shelter typically has 75 to 90 empty beds, the soup kitchen has held steady at 300 to 350 meals a day over the past five years, and a number of homeless services -- the annual "Standdown" for homeless Vietnam vets, for example -- have declining participation.

"The homeless don't need a $6 million palace with a drop-in center having 12 showers, 12 phones, mail service, pack storage, free washers and dryers, and possible on-line access," Parkhouse admonished. "What they desperately need is affordable housing. That's where you solve the homeless problem. That's what the $6 million should be targeting."

Growing emergency

According to the Colorado Department of Local Affairs, around 650 of Colorado Springs' 14,863 apartment units are vacant at any one time -- a vacancy rate of 3.9 percent considered microscopic by industry standards.

BBC determined in a separate study last year that it would take 37,000 new affordable apartment units to meet this city's low-income needs.

Meanwhile, the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless reports that a person working a 40-hour week must earn at least $11.98 an hour to afford the average Colorado Springs rent of $630 a month. A person earning minimum wage would have to work 93 hours a week to meet that rent.

Many of the city's homeless, in short, live in shelters, parks, under bridges, in cars or tent camps because they can't feed their families and pay rent, even with full-time jobs. And the free market isn't solving the affordable housing crunch.

"Many shelter residents come to Colorado Springs because they've heard our economy is booming," said Red Cross director Jeannine Holt. "They find, though, that the only jobs available to them are low end, and it's a lot more expensive to live here than they'd anticipated.

"A large percentage of the jobs in this town pay in the $7 an hour range. Do the math. That won't get you an apartment, let alone the security deposit and last month's rent most landlords demand in addition to the first month's rent, all of which averages out to around $2,000.

"I'd say that 90 percent of the able-bodied people staying in the shelter have full-time jobs," she said. "We've had in excess of 50 children here the past two months, most of whom attend school. People living here aren't vagrants or single men out drinking all night and sleeping all day."

Cooked figures?

Parkhouse joins Mill Street resident and Montgomery Center opponent Will Robinson in questioning the 850 homeless figure cited by the recent study. Both insist the real number is closer to 550 and suspect the higher numbers are projected with an eye to justifying the Montgomery Center complex.

"If the number of homeless has more than doubled," Robinson asked, "why isn't the Red Cross shelter packed to the rafters every night, and why has the soup kitchen held steady at 300 to 350 meals a day?"

"If that figure is legitimate," added Parkhouse, "the Mill Street neighbors are right to be worried because the new center would draw 400 to the shelter every day and another thousand to the soup kitchen. Concentrate that many people with problems, and you concentrate problems.

"I also worry," he concluded, "that a megacenter campus would be a street-life support center, an enabler of the homeless lifestyle. It would be a 'destination resort' for the mobile hard-core homeless."

"Fancier homeless services isn't the answer," Robinson reiterated. "The answer is affordable housing."


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