Published on December 3, 2019

Homelessness is a complex issue, but Jen and Ted get some good information from the city’s Homelessness Response and Prevention Coordinator, Andy Phelps. What organizations and agencies does the city work with on this issue and what progress is being made? How can you donate and where does the money go? These are answers everyone needs to know. Plus, you won’t want to miss an emotional story at the end!

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Episode Transcript

Intro: (00:00)
Behind the Springs, you know, we're trying to make you think out there and inside, look at your local government. They're thanking people. Colorado Springs, nearly 500,000 people, Olympic city, USA, garden of the gods, Pikes peak. It's a growing city. Our local government has a lot of employees. What exactly does it do? How does it impact my life? This is where you find out behind the Springs and inside look at your local government.

Jen: (00:33)
We are tackling a serious issue this time that impacts our community in many ways.

Ted: (00:38)
There are different ways to approach it and different views about it.

Jen: (00:41)
Homelessness usually brings up many questions including what can I do to help and what is the city's role?

Ted: (00:48)
Well, our guest today is Andy Phelps who was the city's [inaudible] homelessness prevention and response coordinator and uh, and a friend of the show, a friend of mine, a friend of Jen's, uh, Andy, thanks for joining us on behind the Springs podcast. How are you today?

Andy: (01:03)
I'm doing great. Happy to be here. Great.

Ted: (01:05)
Well, uh, we're going to get into, as we were just introing it, uh, one of the biggest issues and most talked about issues, um, in Colorado Springs, which is homelessness. But, uh, we'll just start off with some general numbers. How many people are experiencing homelessness in Colorado Springs?

Andy: (01:22)
Well, you know, honestly, that's tough to say. Homelessness is, um, difficult to count. Uh, but I, we do a count every year in our community and it's called the point in time count that happens in late January across the nation. And every community that is a HUD entitlement community. So that's any community that's getting, uh, money from the federal government to address this issue. So we did our point in time count in 2019 on January 28th and we counted around 1500 people experiencing homelessness in our community. Um, a lot of people assume that that means we counted 1500 people outside, but that's not actually the case. We counted, uh, 444 individuals outside. That 1500 number is, can comprise of people that are unsheltered in shelters or in transitional housing. Um, I want to take a, uh, just a moment to address that 444 number. That actually was good news for us. That was a 13% decrease for the unsheltered count in our community. And I think it's important to, um, look at that and you know, and celebrate that small victory cause people, uh, a decrease in people outside means that lives are being saved.

Jen: (02:29)
Absolutely. And, and, uh, can I go back really quick to your title, homelessness prevention and response coordinator. What do you do for the city if, you know, a lot of people probably aren't familiar that your role even exists.

Andy: (02:39)
Yeah. A good job getting the title right. A lot of people, it's a long one. So, uh, I do quite a few things for the city. One of the main, uh, things that I do is I answer all of the complaints, uh, concerning homelessness that come into the city. So that does keep me pretty busy either on the phone or answering emails or meeting in person. Um, we get a lot of, uh, complaints about illegal camps or under our community about things like pain handling or loitering. Um, so I, I spend a lot of time on the phone educating the public on, um, illegal camps and how to report those camps. Um, also I spend a lot of time educating people about panhandling and how it's actually protected by the first amendment. And we have very, uh, specific ways that that's able to be enforced, but often it's not an enforceable, uh, thing.

Ted: (03:27)
Well, we'll get more into the [inaudible] nuts and bolts of your job here, but, um, uh, how does one become the homelessness prevention and response coordinator? Give us a little bit of your background, a quick snapshot of that lovely resume of yours.

Andy: (03:40)
All right, let me see here. So I have been working in the area of homelessness for over a decade and started back in Springfield, Missouri, where I went to college, where I worked for a community mental health center and I did homeless outreach in Springfield. From there I moved to Colorado Springs where I did homeless outreach for Aspen point. Then I did homeless outreach for homes for all veterans and acted as their volunteer coordinator. I actually got around 50 volunteers doing homeless outreach in our community for homes for all vets. From there I did get a master's degree in social work where I focused on homeless policy work for NYU, uh, for a short stent. And then when this job opened up, I came aboard.

Jen: (04:20)
So back in Missouri, when you first started, what motivated you?

Andy: (04:25)
I think a lot of things I came, you know, not to get, you know, to a personal I guess, but I came from,

Ted: (04:31)
we like to get personal.

Andy: (04:34)
I grew up around a biological father, uh, that had issues. And so I got to witness, uh, the impacts of substance abuse on someone's life. And I think that that did, uh, give me a real empathy for people that are struggling. Um, but really I see the real moment, if you will, that my life turned towards, this is the summer after my freshman year of college, I actually moved to Los Angeles, California, and I worked with a missionary out there that did homeless street outreach and skid row. So I actually lived in skid row in LA for a summer and got to witness firsthand, uh, what, what homelessness looks like in our community. And it was a real eye opener for me. I grew up, you know, on the rough edge of middle-class, um, and, and came to city, Missouri. So I got to see a lot of things and skid row that summer that really opened my eyes to suffering in our country. And it really just kind of lit a fire in me that I wanted, uh, to have a positive impact, uh, in this country and try to decrease suffering.

Jen: (05:35)
What are some of the biggest things that you, um, hear about when you're talking about you're responding to emails? What are some of the big concerns you hear is the illegal camping? Probably the number one in the panhandling?

Andy: (05:47)
I say. I get that two main, uh, emails or calls that I get are, one are people that are emailing or calling that are very upset about an illegal camp, illegal camp in our community and they want it removed or you know, unfortunately I get a lot of calls from people that are in desperate need of housing, uh, employment, mental health care shelter, and they're calling me out of desperation and, and wanting help. So I spend a lot of time trying to connect them with available resources in our community for the people that are calling in about the campsite, you know, I share in their frustrations as well. Um,

Jen: (06:22)
They shouldn't be calling you correct. Who should they call?

Andy: (06:25)
It's okay. People can, they can call me. But the, the, uh, the most direct way to get an illegal camp remediated is by calling CSPD non emergency line, which is four, four, four, 7,000. And that is the correct way to create a, what's called a call for service, to get law enforcement out there to enforce that ordinance because.

Jen: (06:45)
So you work a lot with our police department as well, our homeless outreach team.

Andy: (06:48)
I do. Yeah. Really good friends with them and they do amazing work in our community. Not only are they out there enforcing the law, I mean there are law enforcement, that's what they do. But the homeless outreach team are just incredible folks. They go out and they're really trying to get people, um, connected with resources in this community. I often joke that [inaudible] they're really social workers with guns.

Jen: (07:10)
Yes, they're very compassionate though. Very compassionate, great people and great background. You know, a lot of them do have degrees in social work and so forth. So that's awesome.

Ted: (07:20)
Well, and uh, talking about people calling you, um, a lot of the good work that you've done personally with people. I want to tease ahead to a story that we'll have in the second part of this episode, but I do want to hit on the recent story of you helping out a gentleman downtown here that a lot of people, a lot of people have seen and recognize. Um, so we'll jump into some of the personal work that you've done a little bit later. Um, I also do want to tell listeners that Andy is a wealth of knowledge. This is a big concern by the community and we know that, um, we're definitely gonna have you as one of the recurring, uh, interviewees on, uh, uh, on this, uh, podcast going forward, but hit on a lot of people. Uh, you know, I work for city council, so we get the emails as well. And it seems like people might think that there's a magic wand, a silver bullet out there to deal with this or that Colorado Springs is the only city dealing with this issue happening across the country. Why is there no silver bullet? Why is it such a difficult thing to get a grasp on? And I'm talking just in general terms. I know, you know, hit on the mental health aspect. Why that there's all these different issues that run into, uh, uh, into this one lump term of homelessness. Right?

Andy: (08:33)
You're right, there is no silver bullet, unfortunately. Uh, that being said, I don't think that, uh, accepting that there is no silver bullet as any excuse to be apathetic or not, uh, push forward towards known solutions. Uh, but some of the reasons that there's not a silver bullet is that people are complex. People are not, uh, widgets that can be moved around and put into comfortable categories. People are complex. Um, uh, causes of homelessness are varied. Uh, you know, poverty being the main one, but also untreated mental health. And that's a complex issue in itself. Uh, substance abuse issues and of course the lack of affordable housing. Um, and we, our, our, our community is not alone in that issue. We're actually averaged per capita, uh, for a community our size when it comes to homelessness. But I personally don't take any comfort in being average per capita when it comes to homelessness. I think that we need to continue pushing forward. Um, and that's one of the things that I've, I've really, uh, tried to do and working with, um, other in city employees and community partners in the development of the homelessness initiative. And that's one thing I didn't mention earlier. Um, part of my job other than educating the public on homelessness issues is also to help, uh, in developing some of the strategy and how we respond to homelessness. And that's what we have done with the 2019 homelessness initiative.

Ted: (09:55)
Well, let's hit on the homelessness initiative because that is, I think probably, uh, uh, the main highlight of you being here at the city so far is getting this initiative, uh, done and, and a lot of these goals completed so far. Um, but there's still a lot more work to do. So after the break we're going to come back, we'll talk about that. And then again, I want to tease ahead to uh, one of the, you know, we used to be news reporters, the story about you and this gentleman downtown, uh, or one of the great ones that you're here. So I'll continue to tease to that and we'll, we'll get to that in the second part of this episode.

Break: (10:30)
You're loving this podcast, right? Of course you are. And what are you waiting for or follow us on social media at city of cos and check out our website, Colorado All right.

Jen: (10:43)
We have some more questions for Andy Phelps, our homelessness prevention and response coordinator. Andy, the biggest thing that I think, um, a lot of city employees get, um, in terms of a question is what is the city's role when it comes to dealing with homelessness? I know you touched on that a little bit with the homelessness initiative that you started in the strategies that, that you're working toward, um, and working on. Is that part of the city's role?

Andy: (11:08)
Uh, yeah, and I think that also I'd be amiss to not mention a big role of the city is that our, our city as a HUD entitlement community, we act as a pass. *buzzer sound*.

Ted: (11:18)
I should've hit you with this earlier. This is the acronym alert Andy for you not knowing, just for people that don't know what HOD is. Can you tell people, uh,

Andy: (11:26)
we love acronyms. Yes. Uh, department of housing and urban development. Okay. There you go. All right, continue. [inaudible] got more acronyms, but I will go ahead and spell them out so I don't get that again.

Ted: (11:36)
Yeah, you don't want to get hit with the acronyms.

Andy: (11:39)
We do act as a pass through for federal money. Uh, in three buckets. It's CDBG, community development, block grant, ESG emergency solutions, grant and HOME. I do not know what that stands for. I'm that, but it's around four and a half million dollars that our community development division at our city gets that, uh, is passed through to organizations in our community, uh, some of which do help in fighting homelessness. So that's a big role of the city annually and that number changes and varies by year. But our community development division in our city is incredible. We have awesome city employees working daily on this. Um, so this homeless homelessness initiative is really just icing on the cake for the city. I think it's just one more thing that we're doing to try to address

Jen: (12:23)
that initiative does have some important points that I think people would be interested in hearing. I know you can't go over all of them. Uh, the complete initiative is on our website, Colorado or [inaudible] . Yes, yes. Um, and I think that that's a great resource if people, if you have the time to read it, I would encourage that you do that so that you're much more educated, right. In terms of what we're working on. But if you can talk about specifically I think the shelter beds is a big headline for folks.

Ted: (12:52)
to give us the spark notes. People can go on and read the whole thing.

Andy: (12:55)
I would encourage everyone listening to go to help to read the homelessness initiative. Um, but the, the main uh, thing I think that we did last year, one of the main things or about the thing I'm most excited about is we did add a lot of low barrier shelter beds and our community.

Ted: (13:13)
A little applause for you there.

Andy: (13:15)
It was a team effort. Uh, but yeah, I think, I think it's something our community can be proud of. We added over 300 low barrier beds and what low barrier means. I know that's not an acronym, but I was afraid of the sound effects now. So low barrier, low barrier means a lot of things. But, uh, the main thing that it means is that sobriety is not required to enter the shelter. That being said, uh, rules still have to be followed. You have to be able to, uh, you know, lay down and not verbally or physically assault anybody. I mean it's a pretty low bar, but,

Jen: (13:48)
but there are safety,

Andy: (13:49)
there are safe obviously just for the safety of the other people there in the staff. But so we, these extra shelter beds are important because it means lives are being saved. Uh, you know, three years ago we could not have said that we had an adequate number of shelter beds in our community. They were routinely full every night in the winter. Um, and unfortunately there were cases of people, uh, dying from exposure outside. But now we are able to show the community that we have an adequate amount of shelter beds in our community. You can even look at available shelter beds on and I just looked at it here briefly before we started this podcast and there were over a hundred, uh, empty beds last night. Okay. So that, that's a real success. That should be noted.

Ted: (14:30)
Are they hitting that max capacity a lot of times when it is getting pretty cold outside or is there still some available beds on the, on those certain nights?

Andy: (14:39)
Right. We've gotten close. We have gotten close, but we, you know, Springs rescue mission has promised to not turn anyone away for capacity issues. They will make room is kind of the promise they put out by putting mats on the fourth. They have a lot of extra space.

Ted: (14:55)
There is a bed if you need a bed.

Andy: (14:57)
Yes. That is the goal that if, if, if you need shelter in our community, uh, you can access that.

Jen: (15:03)
And another benefit to having those beds is that our law enforcement officers can enforce some of those.

Andy: (15:09)
That's correct. Uh, law enforcement around the country, you know, they are not enabled to enforce camping ban ordinances if there's not shelter beds available. But now that our community can show that we have empty shelter beds, those ordinances like camping on public property or uh, what we call the riparian ordinance that's camping within a hundred feet of any waterway, uh, because of these extra beds, those ordinances can now be enforced. I, which brings me on to another thing that came out of the homelessness initiative is that we did have, uh, additional code enforcement officers added to our neighborhood services division. And what they do is they respond to illegal camps, uh, after the police have identified them and get them removed. Um, and that's important because in the past it often took, uh, a long time for the camps to get removed. Um, and what, what the community often was concerned about is that nothing was ever being done. It looked like the camps just remained. But now we're able to show, because of the additional code enforcement code enforcement officers, those camps are being removed within, uh, at 24 hours. Um, and that's huge.

Ted: (16:14)
And a lot of this initiative also came from concerns from the public. Uh, obviously you've done a lot of research to figure out, uh, what other cities have done well and have incorporated some of those. So hit on some of these other points that maybe people don't see that are in this initial.

Jen: (16:30)
What happens once people go into the shelters? Right, what's happening and what resources are available?

Andy: (16:35)
Shelter is just the beginning, right? Getting them in the door is getting them to a safe place, which is important obviously, but that's where the real work begins. And it's when people start getting connected with case managers at any number of our amazing nonprofits, that's where they start doing the real hard work towards getting into housing and getting into needed services like mental health or substance abuse.

Jen: (17:00)
Uh, talk about a little bit the outreach court that you just started. What does that involve?

Andy: (17:05)
So this is another, uh, objective in the homelessness initiative that I'm proud of. We did a start what we are calling outreach court and that came about because the status quo that I of that I often share with people in the past is that someone is cited for a homeless related crime, like camping on public property. Inevitably they don't show up to court. Then the judge issues a bench warrant. Next time the police find them, they're arrested, taken to jail, and then pretty quickly released because a campaign on public property is a non jailable offense. So basically what we had is a very large expensive revolving door that did not connect anyone to services. So what this outreach court aims to do again is to get people connected to services and housing. You'll see a theme whenever you read the homelessness initiative that it is, the goal is to get people connected to services, shelter and housing.

Jen: (17:57)
While you're talking about that, I want to not interrupt you, but make sure that as people are listening to this, if they are thinking, how do I help? Because I think a lot of people feel that way when this topic comes up, what can I do to help? I really want to talk about our help cos initiative, which is, um, instead of giving your money to panhandlers, which of course you're welcome to do if you would like, but um, the other option would be to give it to help cos and then it goes directly to these providers that you're speaking of. Correct?

Andy: (18:28)
Right. Uh, if people, uh, would like to help out to encourage them to text help cos to six, six, seven, eight, seven, three and all proceeds from those, uh, donations go directly to a service provider and are a service provider in our community for the next year, those funds will be going to the Springs rescue mission to fund their work engagement programs,

Jen: (18:49)
which is awesome. The next step for a lot of folks

Ted: (18:52)
touch hit on hit on that because I know personally for you, this is one of the initiative points that you were most excited about. The other thing I want to point out too is a lot of times, uh, not with our local government, but in other government agencies when you see some of these initiatives or goals, um, sometimes it's just paper being written on. These are all things. And again, I push people to go to help cos. Dot org to look at the entire initiative. You already said it, this was a theme to get people housed overall.

Andy: (19:20)
It's always going to be my goal.

Ted: (19:22)
Yes. And, and if you look at these goals you've hit on most every one of these goals already within a one year time period. Talk about the next one that I know that you're, you're personally excited about.

Andy: (19:34)
I'm excited about all of them.

Ted: (19:36)
Well, yes, yes.

Andy: (19:37)
But the work one, cause I, uh, w so one of the main things I'm trying to do, um, other than getting people into housing and services, I also think that employment is an important key for many, many folks that are out there struggling. And so what we're doing is that we are, um, supporting the Springs rescue missions, a work engagement program with the project. We're calling the my city project and we're really excited about it. Uh, what this project is, is that it gets people, uh, staying at the shelter out into the community, specifically the mill street neighborhood where they will be doing a monthly cleanups in the neighborhood. And I think that's important because it really helps show the community that there's a lot of people in these shelters that really want to have a positive impact in our community. And this is just a way for the people at the shelter to give back to the community to show that they do care. Also, it gets them connected to case management through the work engagement program at Springs rescue mission and is a step towards them gaining employment.

Jen: (20:42)
Well, your theme of kind of talking about providing that connection also, um, brings us to that final story. I know Ted wanted you to tell, Oh yeah. Talk about just, um, not necessarily your role, but you did have a role in connecting, um, one of our homeless residents.

Ted: (20:56)
And this is a, I also want to say this is just one of many stories of Andy touching, uh, somebody's life. And you don't hear about most of these stories, uh, because he's not one to go out and look to be printed in the newspaper or whatever it may be. This one was, but, um,

Jen: (21:13)
which is good. It's good for people to know.

Ted: (21:15)
It is scary. And I know, I know you're a humble guy, but uh, but do, uh, do, do us a some justice and tell us this. Nice story.

Andy: (21:23)
All right. Well there is a, a gentleman, uh, that would paint a handle, an Acacia park. You'd hold a sign that said smile. He was kind of an, a very well known person downtown. Anyways, so what happened is that he was actually quoted in a Gazette article that was written about the help cos campaign. His parents, uh, back in Alabama, uh, thought that he had passed away. They hadn't heard or spoken with him in over five years and every week they had, you know, kind of a tradition where they would just Google his name to in the hopes that something would pop up. And one night, one Friday night, his name popped up as being quoted in this paper. They reached out, his parents reached out to, um, the reporter, uh, at the Gazette, um, about their son and he connected them with me. Um, and I was able to find their son staying at a shelter here in town and said I was able to make that reconnection. And I went up to the shelter that night and I called his mother and put him on the phone. And they had a real, you know, emotional, you know, reconnection that happened there. And they actually have since come out and visited him. Um, but it really, one of the best parts of, uh, the story I think is that, um, I was able to connect this gentleman at the park with outreach workers in our community and get him, uh, into housing through what's called our coordinated entry system. And he now lives in permanent housing in our community and has reconnected with his family. So I think it really underscores that there, there's a lot of people doing good work in our community and there is, um, it's hard, but there is a way out of the situation of homelessness in our community. You just have to get connected to the service providers.

Jen: (23:04)
You are one of them that's doing great work. Thank you.

Ted: (23:06)
Well, and uh, you keep saying that your main goal is to get people housed and it's great when you can have a personal hand in helping somebody like that. So, uh, one of my favorite stories. Yeah. Will you come back where we too hard on you?

Andy: (23:20)
I, you know, the sound effect was kind of jarring, but I think, I think I'll come back.

Ted: (23:23)
Well, I do that so that I can wake up the people listening to the podcast so that they don't fully fall asleep on us. Uh, we will have Andy back. Uh, Jen has given me a face over that. Okay. We'll have Andy back. Thank you very much for being on this episode. And, uh, and rate, like, and subscribe behind the spring. [inaudible].

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