Homeless "Super-Center" in Colorado Springs

HOBOMATT@aol.com
Thu, 17 Jun 1999 23:35:02 EDT


  
 The following is from the Colorado Springs Independent (our  advertizing 
supported free newsweekly) of June 17,1999.
 
Gimme Shelter
El Pomer cuts check for new homeless mall
By Cara DeGette

El Pomar wants a one-stop shopping mall for the homeless people of Colorado 
Springs. And what El Pomar wants, El Pomar gets.

The local nonprofit foundation has written a blank check to renovate the 
Michael Garman owned building at the corner of Wahsatch Avenue and Costilla 
Street southeast of the downtown core. The concept is simple – to consolidate 
many of the services currently scattered in different facilities, mostly 
downtown – into one superstore of sorts for the homeless.

In addition to a new Red Cross shelter, an expanded Drop-in Center and a new 
Marian House soup kitchen, Catholic Community Services and other providers of 
services to the poor and homeless will be housed at "The Center," as it is 
being called. The cost is currently estimated at $3 million.

 
The move will effectively move the homeless away from the downtown core and 
from Confluence Park, an area business and community leaders have long 
envisioned as the site for a convention center.

In the works for nearly two years, the decisions to move and consolidate 
services for the homeless have mostly gone on behind closed doors. Amid their 
secret negotiations, El Pomar and the providers who will use The Center 
facilities apparently forgot to notify the Hillside Neighborhood on whose 
border The Center will be built.

And once they got wind of the plan, Hillside residents responded in fury.

"We hadn’t heard anything, we weren’t invited or welcomed into the planning 
process," said Jason Gaulden, director of the Hillside Neighborhood 
Association. "Now that we finally got word of it, we were invited in after 
the fact."


  The El Pomar Foundation is headed by Bill Hybl, a former state lawmaker and 
current chairman of the U.S. Olympic Committee. His sidekick is foundation 
president Thayer Tutt Jr., grandson of the famous man who endowed his fortune 
to the cause of the continuing betterment of Colorado Springs.

For decades, El Pomar funds have been used to help shape the institutions of 
Colorado Springs, including Colorado College and the Fine Arts Center.

A few years ago, El Pomar became the primary benefactor of the Colorado 
Springs World Arena when it pitched in $27 million to help boost 
disappointing early fund-raising efforts. (Hybl and Tutt are apparently 
pleased with that brainchild – the two were recently spotted boogeying down 
in front-row center seats is the $85 per ticket section of the Bob Dylan and 
Paul Simon concert.)

El Pomar has also been a longtime financier for philanthropic causes, 
including service providers who will benefit from the new center. 

Currently, services are scattered in various locations, mostly downtown. 
After years of downtown merchants’ complaints about homeless and mentally ill 
people scaring away their customers, the move will effectively move that 
segment of society out of the downtown core.

Service providers have already put earnest money down on the building.

Yet the seemingly secret way of doing business stuns some people – including 
those who will likely use The Center’s services.

"In Colorado Springs, they do anything they want," said Amanda Terrell, a 
formerly homeless Colorado Springs resident who still eats occasionally at 
the soup kitchen. "I don’t know how things get done around here. It’s a 
puzzlement to me.

"There should have been big signs posted and meetings held where the town 
comes together and says yea or nay to the plan," she said. "In Santa Fe, for 
example, you don’t even move a bus stop without telling the community.

"It’s very strange here."

Tutt said that it makes more sense to consolidate services, and that "it 
won’t get done unless El Pomar takes a major part in it."

"Putting it all in one place is far more efficient than having [services] 
scattered all over," he said. "Clearly, we’re the catalyst for getting this 
process moving, but it won’t happen without support from the city and others."


Hillside Neighborhood Organization director Jason Gaulden believes his 
All-American award-winning neighborhood has worked too hard to improve their 
community be saddled with the homeless shopping mall. 

It’s no secret that some downtown business owners and shoppers have long 
complained about homeless people cluttering up the booming yuppie sector and 
making them nervous with their unpredictable behavior.

But Beth Spokas, executive director of Downtown Partnerships, Inc. which 
advocates for business owners, doesn’t like to talk about that kind of stuff. 
In fact, Spokas got downright testy when asked twice whether removing the 
homeless from downtown was part of the motivation for the new site. Spokas 
served on the initial organizing committee.

"If what you’re suggesting is true, we never would have looked at downtown 
sites as well," she said. Of three sites that were considered by The Center’s 
site selection committee, two were closer to downtown. But, according to the 
committee’s June 1998 recommendation, of the other two sites that were 
considered – the spot where the Marian Soup Kitchen now stands and the Metro 
Tech Center on East Costilla – neither were deemed compatible with the 
surrounding neighborhoods.

The committee deemed the Wahsatch site compatible with the neighbor. Trouble 
is, they didn’t check with the surrounding neighbors – in this case, the 
Hillside Neighborhood Organization – to see how agreeable the new neighbors 
were to the idea of moving the one-stop homeless service center into their 
neighborhood.

When Hillside neighbors found out, they were less than pleased. Just two 
years ago, the neighborhood in southeast-central Colorado Springs, was 
honored as an "All-American city." The prestigious national award was 
presented after the communittylabored for years to clean up the urban blight 
and crime that had overtaken their racially mixed neighborhood. Now, they 
don’t want to become a dumping ground for the homeless.

"Hillside Neighborhood, both as individual neighbors and as a collective 
community, has worked too long and too hard in our efforts to better the 
quality of living in this area to have an unwelcome project be forced upon us 
contrary to our interests," the association stated in a letter of protest 
dated May 21.

"At this time, due to lack of information, unanswered questions, and 
un-addressed concerns, we DO NOT welcome this project and WILL NOT allow it 
to go forward against the will of the neighborhood residents."

The association is currently circulating a petition in efforts to keep the 
project from moving forward. Gaulden said of 1,400 households in the Hillside 
community, he knows of only one that approves the plan.

Tutt, however, poo-poos the neighbors’ claims that they should have been 
notified early in the planning process that The Center would be built in 
their back yard.

"Until a site was selected and the nonprofits [involved] had reached 
agreement, there was nothing to show the neighbors," he said. "I think it’s 
been an excellent effort."

Cyndy Kulp, the outspoken head of the Housing Advocacy Coalition, is critical 
of, though not surprised by the "sneaky way" that El Pomar and other city 
leaders went about planning The Center.

"If they really want to make a city that people can enjoy, they should build 
housing, not just remove [the homeless] to another part of town," said Kulp, 
whose organization agitates for affordable housing for those with low 
incomes. "You can’t hide the homeless problem by pushing them to the side."

There is another reason why critics, including the homeless and soup kitchen 
patrons are questioning the perceived secretiveness over the new site. Some 
are wondering whether the expensive new digs are even necessary.

"We’re certainly sympathetic and understand the need to serve [the homeless], 
but as far as this facility, we don’t see it as an asset to our community, 
and we haven’t seen much information that it would be an asset to the 
community it’s supposed to serve," Gaulden said. 

Only two years ago, again with El Pomar money, the local Red Cross shelter 
got a $350,000 renovation. But now, shelter Director Debbie Mitguard said the 
facility in its current location at Sierra Madre was always meant to be 
temporary.

Like Kulp, Hillside’s Gaulden sees no real benefit in simply moving the 
homeless population from one place to another.

"Not to speak offensively or defensively of the population we’re talking 
about, it’s the reality of the situation," Gaulden said. "And the reality is 
that what we see in the northwest part of downtown with the problem of 
homeless [people] sleeping under the bridge and holding signs for help will 
just be moved here.

"Those same issues exist there, what’s to say it won’t be here?"

Nothing suggests it won’t be there. And, as low-income, affordable housing 
stocks continue to dry up at an alarming rate while wages don’t keep pace, 
the problem of homelessness is only going to get worse.

Tutt doesn’t discount that El Pomar could one day help in efforts to offer 
long-range solutions to housing that would take people off the streets for 
good. But, he points out, the responsible agencies, including those of the 
city of Colorado Springs and the federal government have to take the lead.

Mitguard, who will be The Center’s new director, said the problem is more 
complex.

"Certainly, affordable housing is a piece, but it’s not the only piece – I 
wish it were that simple," she said. "So many people need help with job and 
budgeting skills. Child care and transportation are huge issues in this town. 
There are so many factors, so that’s why we’re concentrating our efforts in 
one place. Let’s just get them all together."

Tutt maintains that El Pomar’s focus is in the right place when asked whether 
the nonprofit foundation has considered helping out with a more permanent 
solution, that is, giving money to help build needed low-income housing.

"These people have a long way to go before they can afford housing," he said. 
"Our focus is improving the infrastructure for the really down and out.

"We’ve always had a bias toward serving the needs of the low income. 
Affordable housing is an important issue, it’s just not the issue here," he 
said.

But, according to advocates for the homeless, providing low-income, 
affordable housing is the only real, long-term solution.

During the annual Colorado Coalition for the Homeless held early this month 
in Denver, CCH chairman Jack Real wryly noted that when the group formed 12 
years ago, they thought it was for the short-term. They would solve the 
problem, and it would go away.The federal government’s commitment to 
subsidized housing has shriveled. In the 1970’s, when Jimmy Carter was in 
office, the department of Housing and Urban Developement was a $33 billion 
machine. During Ronald Reagan’s time in the White House, HUD was slashed to 
$7 billion. Those resources have never been replaced.

However, the homeless problem has only gotten is worse. And, for the poor, 
the future looks bleak. The gully between the rich and the poor continues to 
widen, and in an era of growing conservatism, poor peoples’ civil rights are 
often eroding while their income declines and access to health care shrivels.

"We’re losing ground rather than gaining ground," Real said.

Colorado is in the midst of an economic boom, but the prosperity has not made 
the state a benevolent patron to the poor. In fact, Colorado’s wealth has had 
the opposite effect on the homeless and working poor. The average price of a 
new home in Colorado is now $220,000. That’s equal to 20 times what a 
minimum-wage worker will earn in a full year, or 38 times what someone living 
on Social Security will take in. With housing costs skyrocketing, wages have 
not increased.

Now, minimum-wage workers have to work 92 hours a week to afford a place to 
live. People living on Social Security have to pay their entire month’s 
income to rent for an average one-bedroom apartment. People living on 
disability still receive $229 a month – not even sufficient to pay the cost 
of an average rent. The amount hasn’t increased for nearly 20 years.

"It’s a tragedy that the state thinks people who are alone or disabled can 
live on this," Real said. "I don’t think the governor or legislators would 
accept this kind of freeze [on their salaries]."

Further compounding the problem, beginning last year, Section 8 
affordable-housing vouchers began to expire and many landlords opted not to 
renew them. The result has been an even more dramatic paucity of affordable 
housing.

After rattling off these facts and figures, Real paused for a minute. "No 
wonder we have to open more shelters," he said.

In Colorado Springs, the Red Cross’Mitguard said that the current number of 
occupants hovers at around 200. The shelter’s capacity is 260. Contrary to 
people’s idea that more people come for help during the cold of winter, 
summer generally brings an influx, particularly of families who move when 
their kids are out of school. Also, landlords tend to evict more often during 
the summer, and the higher summer rates bump many out of motels they 
otherwise live in and on to the streets.

Of course, not everyone stays in a shelter when they become homeless. Taking 
into account people who live in their cars or under bridges or are crashing 
temporarily with friends and family, there is no clear number of how many 
people in Colorado Springs are currently homeless. Kulp estimates as many as 
1,500 people have no place to call home.

 
The dispossessed
The Rev. Emory Searcy, who is the national field organizer of the Washington, 
D.C.-based Soujourners/Call to Renewal, said the problem, quite simply, is 
poverty. 

Searcy was the keynote speaker at the CCH conference, and, like Real, he 
threw out plenty of distressing numbers. 

For example, the CEO of WalMart last year made $5 million. A cashier at the 
discount store would have to work 312 years to earn that much money. 

Searcy proposed an excise tax be levied on corporations who pay their 
managers more than 30 percent more than its lowest-paid worker. The 
corporations’ likely response, he said, would be to increase worker pay.

"How much money do you need to have?" he wondered. "These are broad strokes, 
but it’s a pathway to dealing with the widening gap between the haves and the 
have-nots."

Searcy chided politicians and business leaders for their refusal to deal 
effectively with the growing problem of homelessness, which, he said, has 
gotten worse since last year’s welfare-reform act. Since then, he said, many 
former welfare recipients have lost their homes and in many cases, 
essentially "disappeared."

"Most states can’t tell you definitively where these people have gone," he 
said. "These people are not lumber, they are not chairs or tables. These 
people are human beings."

"These people" include the perpetually homeless and families who have been 
pummeled with disaster. They are the people whose families couldn’t deal with 
them anymore because of their mental illnesses or their drunkenness.

"People don’t want to get close to poverty, don’t want to touch it or smell 
its distinct odor, Searcy said. "There’s a certain cynicism to homelessness, 
and there are people who don’t really want to hear about it especially when 
they’re up and the economy is swollen. But by adopting this cynical attitude 
– especially in front of our children – what message are we sending?"

During his charismatic speech, Searcy applauded those Colorado service 
providers who are trying so hard to "work their way out of a job."

But in Colorado Springs, it seems that El Pomar is providing the ultimate in 
job security by building those service providers what some critics are 
calling the "Palace of the Homeless," fancy new offices without providing the 
only real long-term solution – low income housing to get them off the 
streets. 

Offensive and belligerent
The Housing Advocacy Coalition’s Kulp derides the priorities that are decided 
in boardrooms and behind closed doors. Kulp is not homeless; in fact she 
lives very comfortably in the ritzy Broadmoor neighbood, nearly within 
shouting distance of El Pomar’s headquarters. Over the past few years, she 
has made plenty of enemies in town with her uncompromising positions. 

Chief organizer of the annual "Parade of Homelessness" that coincides with 
developers’ Parade of Homes designed to showcase fancy new homes, Kulp’s 
parade includes homeless demonstrators who show up to protest the city’s 
continuing lack of affordable housing. 

Even segments of the homeless people she is advocating for criticize Kulp for 
being impolite and for being a "one-person show." Amanda Terrell, who 
recently resigned as the vice president of the Housing Advocacy Coalition, 
said she was frustrated over what she calls the organization’s lack of goals. 

During the June 4 CCH conference, CU-Boulder sociology Professor Dan Cress 
noted that advocacy groups, throughout the West particularly, often have a 
difficult time making inroads. In cities like Philadelphia and Boston, he 
said, protesters are interpreted differently than in most Western states and 
are less likely to be labeled as being offensive and belligerent. But, he 
said, such activism is often necessary to affect true change.

And being accused of being rude has not stopped Kulp.

"The social-service agencies are the ones who really disgust me," she said of 
their willingness to accept the new facility. "If they would have been the 
advocates for the real needs of the low income, they could have had a huge 
influence in this decision. Instead, they are the major beneficiaries." 

Kulp likens The Center to "throwing money into a money pit," without 
addressing the fundamental causes for the need in the first place.

"Think of how far $3 million could go if they used it to buy affordable 
housing for people with low incomes," she said.


Jerry, a homeless man who doesn’t want his last name used because he fears 
harassment, is critical of the Red Cross Shelter. “They don’t really care 
about you -- they throw away your stuff if you are not in on time [at night]. 
Once, they were throwing my stuff away when I was in the bathroom.” 

During the statewide conference, Cress pointed out that, oftentimes, 
organizations that help the poor and homeless are loath to rock the boat, 
because they don’t want to alienate their donors.

"There’s a hesitancy in supporting advocacy groups because of a resistance to 
biting the hand that feeds them," Cress said. "And often [most of] their time 
is spent running their operations, so there’s not a lot of time to get 
involved in activism."

And, he’s found during his years studying homelessness, what service 
providers say they need and the primary concerns of the people they are 
trying to help are often at odds. Providers tend to want more programs. But 
often, the homeless are more worried about maintaining their personal 
freedoms – and about being protected from police harassment, which has been a 
major issue for the homeless in Colorado Springs.

Now, with the new center just two blocks away from police headquarters, many 
believe that people who currently eat at the soup kitchen will stay away. 

"Plenty of people won’t go there because of their fear of the police," said 
J.D. Akeo, treasurer of HAC.

Mitguard, director of the Red Cross shelter, said one of their struggles has 
always been how to give people a dignified and safe place to live.

"We have a higher level of privacy now, but we’d like to be able to provide 
separate rooms for families and more privacy also to single folks," she said

And, the shelter has rigid rules for the guests who stay there. Curfew is at 
xx. No pets are allowed. The shelter has zero tolerance for anyone who shows 
up under the influence of drugs or alcohol, and if someone does show up high, 
that person is 86ed for 30 days. The second time, the person is banished for 
a year. Everyone is asked at the door whether he or she is a sex offender and 
those who answer yes are sent on their way. Sometimes, the police show up 
with pictures of wanted suspects. If a shelter guest matches a description, 
the police are called, Mitguard said.

These policies separate the two segments of the homeless population – those 
who are willing to go with the shelter’s mandatory program to work under the 
guidance of case workers to become "responsible citizens again" and those who 
are unwilling to commit to dealing with their substance abuse or mental 
illness. Mitguard said the rules have cut down on violence at the shelter.

However, the all-under-one-roof concept belies the shelter’s basic commitment 
of separating program-committed homeless people from substance abusers and 
the mentally ill.

Troublemakers and sexual predators who are currently banned from the shelter 
will be in close proximity as all segments of the homeless population 
converge on The Center – and the surrounding neighborhood – for food, 
medicine, shelter and a myriad of other services. 

Mitguard calls this factor a "glitch" that still needs to be worked out.

Amanda Terrell, meanwhile, argues that The Center will answer the needs of 
the service providers, but not the needs of the people who actually use their 
services.

These are things that the El Pomar Foundation is not likely to think about 
when considering its altruism relative to offering a blank check to pay for 
The Center.

The philanthropic organization may have a heart the size of a superstore when 
it comes to offering blank checks to its advocate causes. But it’s been a 
long time – if ever – since the moneyed leaders behind the effort have been 
one paycheck away from being out on the streets.

And they surely never suggested that the new homeless mall should be built in 
the Broadmoor neighborhood.