Homelessness-related issues have been some of the most difficult issues to face our community. Because homelessness is a complex issue caused by many different factors, there is no one easy solution. For this reason, the City supports the Pikes Peak Continuum of Care, a consortium of stakeholder organizations with expertise in specific areas of homelessness, to provide services and to advise the City on the issue.
The issue of homelessness is not unique to Colorado Springs, but is an issue that affects communities across the nation. Our homeless numbers per capita are average in comparison to other similarly populated areas across the country. That said, we recognize the valid concerns raised by our residents, and assure you we are working hard to address the issue on multiple levels.
As you can imagine, we are hearing from advocates for the homeless who believe the City should be doing more to assist this population, and who display sympathy for those affected by homelessness. They are concerned that some in our community have no place to live, can’t find housing or jobs, don’t have a place to go the bathroom, take a shower, dump their garbage, or get mental health or substance abuse help. They are concerned that some in our community work or have housing vouchers but still can’t find a place to live. We appreciate and recognize this view.
We are also hearing from those in our community who are upset about trash, safety of our parks, camping on public property, illegal fires, and crime in their neighborhoods. Many of these individuals feel that the City, the County, the Faith Community and the Homeless agencies do too much enabling and that many people abuse the system. These are also valid concerns. Finding the balance in providing services to those experiencing homelessness while respecting the needs and concerns of all residents remains the City’s priority.
Perhaps the most frequent complaints we hear have to do with the number of panhandlers on our streets corners and people camping on public property. While we can limit activity on medians where occupation presents a safety risk to pedestrians or drivers, panhandling itself is protected under the First Amendment. Further, heeding the direction of a Department of Justice brief written in 2015, our police force will not relocate individuals camping on non-park public land unless there is a shelter space available. While our community is committed to addressing the concerns of its residents, it can and will only do so within the confines of the law.
In January 2018, the annual Point in Time count showed the total number of people experiencing homelessness in our community to be 1,551, an increase of 9.6% (136 people) since 2017. This number includes those living outside, in emergency shelters, or in transitional housing. 513 of the 1,551 were living outside at that time. This number is considered to be a conservative estimate as counting those experiencing homelessness is difficult to do accurately. The increase of 136 individuals counted may be partially due to improved counting efforts, including 50% more volunteers since 2017.
We also know from the 2018 “Point in Time” count that 61% of the individuals we contacted through our survey this year listed their last permanent address as being within El Paso County, indicating that most of those experiencing homelessness here were last housed locally.
Providers added 217 shelter beds in the community in the past year. There were 652 shelter beds occupied – bringing 116 more people in out of the cold and into emergency shelter than the previous year. Low-barrier options, such as the beds provided at the Springs Rescue Mission, were 100% occupied on the night of the “Point in Time” count.
Vacancies continue to exist in cold weather shelter with minimal services and in programs dedicated to special populations with higher barriers, such as families with children. Data continues to show that low-barrier shelter with on-site services such as showers, meals, healthcare, and case management works to move people off the street.