Within the last five weeks, an encampment has emerged in a parking lot, 5 W. Las Vegas St., on the property of Springs Rescue Mission (SRM). It is estimated that there are over 100 people living in this encampment with around 65 tents in the parking lot.
The encampment is on the Springs Resuce Mission’s private property. SRM has provided dumpsters, trash bags, and porta potties for the residents. In addition, SRM sends staff there on a regular basis to keep the area clean and to make sure everyone’s on their best behavior.
“The community itself has started self-regulating. They have come to us and asked for more trash bags when they are out,” said Thomas Voss, Director of Communications for the Springs Rescue Mission.
The 2016 Point In Time Survey found a total of 1,032 people experiencing homelessness in El Paso County. This is a 21 percent increase from the 2015 Point in Time Survey. The survey is also expected to not have accounted for the full homeless population in the County.
The Springs Rescue Mission is a low barrier shelter that aims “To see lives transformed and filled with hope as our community works together to fight homelessness, poverty, and addiction. Because of our love for and obedience to God, our mission is to mobilize the community to provide relief, rehabilitation, and empowerment services,” according to the Springs Rescue Mission website.
A low barrier shelter does not require people to be sober, on mental health or treatment plans, or to agree to engage in programs in order to receive support or housing. The Springs Rescue Mission is the only low barrier shelter in Colorado Springs.
Currently, the Springs Rescue Mission is undergoing major renovation. Voss said, “Right now our facilities are under construction, so our shelter is unfortunately closed right now, we are hoping to open by November 1st. We do have some delays happening, so we are hoping to open no later than November 10th.”
Colorado Springs’ seasonal Weber Street Shelter closed in April 2016, which means there are 170 fewer beds for this coming winter.
Tryve Bundgaard, co-executive director of the Coalition for Compassion and Action, said, “This will be a really big shocker to our city. The city has paid for a winter warming center the last four years but it is not happening this year. It held up to 300 people and we lost all of that. We are very scared that this winter will be very deadly.”
Raven, resident of the encampment and spokesperson for the community, said, “This is home. Last year someone froze to the ground and died. This is my family; I don’t want that to happen again.”
Voss said, “We never encourage camping. We are about helping people get into a better situation out of homelessness. While we are under construction, we are left with little options and so while we don’t encourage it, we have offered up the property for now as a temporary solution. We absolutely do not encourage the growth of the encampment. But, where else would they go right now?”
There is nowhere to go for the homeless of Colorado Springs. “The camp exists where it does now because people have nowhere else to go,” Bundgaard said. “Since 2010, when the no-camping ordinance passed, people have been systematically pushed out of town.”
The city’s agenda has been successful and passed the Pedestrian Access Act last April. The Act prohibits sitting, and lying on public right-of-ways including sidewalks and trails in Old Colorado City and Downtown Colorado Springs.
Bundgaard said, “The city’s been successful in making it illegal to camp outside in tents. The encampment has grown exponentially. It was around 20-25 people and now it is well over 100. It’s a clear sign that there’s nowhere else to go and RJ Montgomery is the only shelter that is currently is open.”
RJ Montgomery is a high barrier shelter that is operated by the Salvation Army. The shelter only accepts people who are sober, have not committed a felony, have not used marijuana within the last twelve hours, and does not allow pets. In addition, if people leave the shelter, they receive a 90 day probation from the shelter.
The Springs Rescue Mission expansion is costing $13.8 million. Raven questioned the expansion project and thought the money could be redirected “to build 3,000 tiny homes to solve the housing crisis in Colorado Springs. Why are we wasting money on big development projects?”
The main shelter within SRM will now be year round as opposed to winter only and will be able to serve up to 150 individuals every night. On the coldest nights, they will be able to add 32 mats on the floor, making the total number 182. In addition, SRM will be opening a winter women’s shelter, that will offer women a space of their own. The women’s shelter will hold 32 beds and on the coldest nights they can put 20 mats down to have a total of 52 spaces.
Bundgaard said, “They need blankets right now and it’s already getting cold. There seems to be a misunderstanding that once SRM opens, a solution will be in place, but there are only 150 beds. They are talking about if it’s really bad weather they could have 260 beds. But, there are 750-1300 people living outside, even at max capacity they will only be able to serve a third to a quarter of the homeless people in Colorado Springs.”
The encampment is accepting donations through the Coalition for Compassion and Action. Members of the encampment voiced the need for additional trash cans.
A city comparable to Colorado Springs is Albuquerque, New Mexico, which has 470 emergency shelter beds. There is a large discrepancy between the shelter beds provided between the two cities. Colorado Springs lack of emergency shelter beds this coming winter could lead to a death toll.
Bundgaard said, “The reality is that one of the reasons that our homelessness crisis is so severe is that we have no affordable housing available. We have a lot of programs for food, medical assistance, drug treatment, and jobs, but the number one thing to make a person not homeless is to get a home. There are massive amounts of people fighting for affordable units. There are simply no units available and that is a major red flag for the current situation in our city. There are 35 agencies working to end homelessness, but there are no affordable houses in Colorado Springs.”
The Coalition for Compassion and Action has an upcoming protest on October 22 to increase awareness about the lack of winter shelter in Colorado Springs. People will dress up as frozen and sit throughout Colorado Springs with signs bringing light to the situation. CCA hopes that the citizens of Colorado Springs will be find that a death toll among the cities most impoverished people is unacceptable.