Affordable housingColorado SpringsNews

Colorado Springs Conversation on homelessness gets heated despite vows of cooperation

Author: Jakob Rodgers, The Gazette - March 1, 2018 - Updated: March 1, 2018

Amid vows of collaboration, key differences emerged at a Colorado Springs forum Wednesday evening on which strategies to address homelessness would help or hurt people living on the streets.

The city’s role in addressing homelessness took center stage at The Gazette’s latest Community Conversations forum. The panel discussion focused on an issue that appears on the rise in Colorado Springs.

Mayor John Suthers announced several new city-led initiatives planned for 2018, including the start of a campaign in March asking people to donate to charities instead of to panhandlers.

Enforcement of camping bans across the city, as well as creekside cleanups, will be “a very serious priority” this year, Suthers said. And the city attorney is researching the constitutionality of an ordinance that would ban camping within a certain distance of a creek, to cut down on E.coli levels in waterways, Suthers said.

And he said the city plans to place six dumpsters along city trails and creek beds for homeless campers to use.

“If nothing else, we’re doing it because it’s easier for the city to accomplish the cleanups if the dumpsters are there,” Suthers said.

The suggestion came as the mayor’s top police lieutenant overseeing homelessness in the city cast doubt on the willingness of homeless campers to keep their campsites clean.

Lt. Mike Lux, who oversees the Police Department’s Homeless Outreach Team, said four dumpsters were recently filled with trash while cleaning up a 55-tent encampment along the Pikes Peak Greenway behind the Springs Rescue Mission.

That set off Trig Bundgaard, of Blackbird Outreach, who defended the campers.

“If you give them trash dumpsters, they pick it up,” he countered. Bundgaard, whose nonprofit helps those living on the streets, said those criticizing the camps often don’t have first-hand knowledge of the conditions.

The forum comes as residents and business owners voice increasing concern about the safety and public health risks of so many camps across the city. But homeless advocates say the city’s lack of affordable housing has left many people without the ability to find apartments, and others priced out of their units and on the streets.

The panelists found several broad areas of agreement Wednesday, including a need for landlords across the city to begin accepting more federal housing vouchers, despite the fact that they pay less than market value.

And everyone agreed that more affordable housing is needed to truly address homelessness across the city.

In the meantime, several homeless advocates soon plan to discuss the feasibility of creating a sanctioned camping site in the city.

“We have to have this conversation in our community,” said Beth Roalstad, the Pikes Peak Continuum of Care’s chairwoman.

Suthers, however, quickly poured cold water on the idea.

“Nationally, everybody is advising against a city sponsored homeless camp – that it’s an absolute disaster in terms of public safety,” Suthers said.

The notion of a city-led jobs program that pays homeless people to clean areas of the city was “an excellent strategy,” said Christopher Garvin, the El Paso County Department of Human Services.

Suthers said the only way city funding could go to such a program is if a nonprofit agreed to run it.

“This is not just a government problem,” Suthers said. “The city is not going to solve this problem.”

Nonprofit leaders touted several achievements, including the planned construction of two apartment buildings catering to people who are homeless.

“This is not impossible,” said Terry Anderson, of the Springs Rescue Mission. “It will take a collective will. It will take effort. And yes it will take money. But we can do this.”

Jakob Rodgers, The Gazette

Jakob Rodgers, The Gazette