El Paso County homeless population sees dramatic decrease, survey says

Jansen Howard with Homeward Pikes Peak surveys Daniel Davison where he was living in January. Results of this year’s annual Point in Time survey show a marked decease in the El Paso County homeless population. (Photo by Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette)

For the first time in five years, El Paso County’s homeless population has decreased significantly, according to results of an annual survey.

The Point in Time survey — overseen by the Pikes Peak Continuum of Care, a local decision-making group working to end homelessness — found a total of 1,116 people identified as homeless in the 2020 survey, conducted the last week in January. Those who self-identified as homeless indicated they were sleeping in local shelters, vehicles, camps, abandoned buildings or temporary transitional housing.

This year’s total of 1,116 reflects a 29% drop from last year’s countywide high of 1,562.

“That’s a pretty substantial decrease and a five-year low,” said Andy Phelps, homeless prevention and response coordinator for the city of Colorado Springs.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) requires the yearly census for communities that receive federal funding, which also use the data to identify trends and develop programs.

The survey amounts to the most comprehensive snapshot of homelessness in the area but does not include people who are staying with family or friends, often referred to as “couch-surfers.” Organizers say the survey typically under-counts the true number of homeless because participation is voluntary, and finding every camp is nearly impossible.

Of those counted in January, 358 were considered “unsheltered,” or living outside. That’s down 30% over 2018’s high of 513 unsheltered people and signifies a four-year low.

Why the decrease?

“It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly,” Phelps told the Colorado Springs Planning Commission on Wednesday while reporting on the city’s homeless initiative.

But he lists concerted efforts that began last year — not to end homelessness, but to provide more options for those who are homeless and decrease barriers that prevent people from being able to better their lives — as contributing to the improving numbers.

City leaders committed more funding to projects to benefit the homeless, including adding 150 shelter beds at Springs Rescue Mission that are “low barrier,” meaning people do not have to be sober or in a recovery program to stay there overnight, but do have to exhibit good behavior. That adds up to nearly 700 shelter beds in the region.

The city also supported a nonprofit collaboration that earlier this year opened the state’s first low-barrier, stand-alone family shelter, in a former motel on South Nevada Avenue.

Springs Rescue Mission built a new permanent housing complex, Greenway Flats, where the chronically homeless can live and obtain support services.

Colorado Springs now has an average of 110 empty shelter beds each night, compared with 37 in 2018, Phelps said.

“That shows we have an adequate amount of low-barrier shelter in our community; no one is forced to survive outside,” he said.

That should help reduce deaths among the homeless, particularly in the winter, Phelps said, and also has helped authorities enforce no-camping bans.

In 2019, police issued 804 tickets to people illegally camping near streams, in parks and on public property, statistics show. In comparison, police gave out 135 illegal camping tickets in 2016.

Illegal homeless camps can be found throughout the community, Phelps said, and are concentrated in areas along the Interstate 25 corridor and near streams.

Camps are being eradicated and cleaned up within 24 hours of being reported, he added, with 1 million pounds of trash in 1,600 truckloads removed last year.

Phelps said 847 illegal camps were cleaned up in 2019 versus 470 in 2018.

A new program allows those ticketed for illegal camping and other municipal infractions to either pay the fine or meet with a case manager and work on getting out of homelessness, Phelps said.

Another new street outreach program enables people staying at Springs Rescue Mission to develop job skills by helping with a monthly cleanup around the Mill Street neighborhood. They also can earn money working on city median maintenance projects and potentially be hired for one of up to eight full-time positions, Phelps said. One position has been filled so far.

The Colorado Springs Fire Department is launching a pilot program with four new city employees who will reach out to “super utilizers,” homeless people who have the most calls for service to police, and help them access shelter and housing.

The program is designed to “increase the perception of safety downtown and decrease calls for service for behavioral types of issues in the downtown area,” Phelps said.

El Paso County also has added more affordable housing, the No. 1 obstacle to people getting off the streets, said Steve Posey, HUD program manager and head of the city’s community development division.

On Mayor John Suthers’ direction, the city set a goal of building or purchasing 1,000 units of affordable and attainable housing each year to increase the inventory, he said.

The single biggest contributing factor to the region’s lack of housing affordability is that wages are not keeping pace with the real estate market, Posey said.

Between 2011 and 2019, household income increased by 12% in the Pikes Peak region, while home prices escalated by 76% and rent prices went up 66%, he said.

Consequently, one in three households in El Paso County spend more than 30% of family income on housing. When that happens, people spend less on health care, healthy food, retirement savings and other preventive services.

“The need is high,” Posey said, but specific strategies are underway.

New affordable housing projects for the homeless population

New projects affordable housing projects for homeless individuals and families:

• Greenway Flats: 64 units of permanent supportive housing on West Las Vegas Street, adjacent to the Springs Rescue Mission campus, opened last year and is fully occupied.

• Freedom Springs: 48 units of permanent supportive housing for homeless veterans on Western Drive is under construction and scheduled to be completed soon.

• The Commons: 50 units of permanent supportive housing for homeless families on East Uintah Street near North Academy Boulevard. The project of Homeward Pikes Peak recently received an allocation of 9% low-income housing tax credits and is scheduled to break ground next year.

• Rocky Mountain Apartments: an 18-unit project of Greccio Housing, this will be the city’s first “acquisition and conversion” of an existing office building into affordable one- and two-bedroom apartments. Located on East Bijou Street and North Circle Drive, the development is scheduled to open soon and will offer two Americans with Disabilities Act units, a picnic area, playground, community garden and to-go library.

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