Homeless day center opens to rave reviews in Colorado Springs, but funding short for critical component

By Jakob Rodgers Updated: September 18, 2017 at 10:58 am • Published: September 17, 2017 0

Surviving on the streets in Colorado Springs used to be a workout.

For years, it meant trekking at least 4 miles across downtown for a shower, clean laundry, three square meals a day and a bed.

Getting workforce help, food stamps or a driver's license tacked on another 6 or 7 miles each way.

That is, until now.

The Springs Rescue Mission opened its long-anticipated homeless resource center last week - filling a need that homeless advocates have been pining for in a city beset by sprawl and a bare-bones bus system.

It's the latest realization of Springs Rescue Mission's vision for an unprecedented campus providing a literal path from the streets to housing.

"This campus was built with a great deal of dignity," said Larry Yonker, the nonprofit's president and CEO. "And if you ask anything of the guests, if there's one thing they love about this, it's that they feel valued."

More is on the way.

rescue Mission
Keith Alombro charges his phone in the day center of the Springs Rescue Center. The rescue opened the second half of its resource center — bringing to completion a project that homeless advocates have been seeking for years. The 11,000 square-foot center marks the latest addition to the nonprofit’s burgeoning campus off Las Vegas Street, west of Tejon Street. And it acts as a one-stop shop for myriad services that were either exceedingly hard to find, or spread out across several miles of Colorado Springs. The day center opened in the Spring. (Photo by Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette) 

In November, the nonprofit plans to level an abandoned bowling alley to make way for a $14 million, 65-unit apartment complex called Greenway Flats. It's being developed by Nor'wood Development Group using low-income housing tax credits.

But while that project is fully financed,a critical final component of this campus is not.

So last week's celebration came with a caveat.

Construction of a kitchen, 200-person dining hall and a welcome center was placed on hold amid slower-than-expected fundraising.

The nonprofit needs another $2.5 million to break ground on the roughly $8 million project - money that has been hard to find amid several other capital campaigns across the city. Rising construction costs and unexpected flood mitigation needs also played a factor.

Still, Yonker remained confident that the campus will be completed as planned. He sees little alternative.

"In the rescue world, it's going to be a model that gets looked at," Yonker said.

Room for restorative solace

What's happened so far is unprecedented for Colorado Springs, homeless advocates say.

In only a few years, the nonprofit has helped Colorado Springs meet its most critical needs: more shelter space and a day center, said Beth Roalstad, chairwoman of the Pikes Peak Continuum of Care, which oversees millions of dollars in federal grants every year geared toward homeless services.

"I'm always careful to say that that's the answer," Roalstad said. "It's not the answer to all of our problems. But it brings our community forward by a huge leap, and that is to be celebrated."

Inside the day center is an expansive waiting room with tables made of wood from old bowling alley lanes. Outlets and computers line the walls, separated by a large flat-screen TV to help people waiting for appointments pass the time.

Sixteen showers are here - a boon for a city that, until now, only had two available for people experiencing homelessness. Both were 1½ miles away at Ecumenical Social Ministries.

It all opened in April. For Adrian Felan, 33, that's meant having a shot at employment.

Felan, recently released from prison after serving about three years for menacing, spent the past week sleeping and showering at the Springs Rescue Mission while seeking work. Doing so has helped combat the stigma facing people who are homeless.

"If you can't be dedicated to keeping yourself clean," he said, "how can you be dedicated to coming to work every day?"

Last week, the rest of this 11,000-square-foot facility opened, including six washers and six driers.

A room used for life skills classes occasionally doubles as a "quiet room," where the lights are dimmed, and the center's hustle and bustle quickly fade. It's meant to offer a place for restorative solace, said Thomas Voss, a mission spokesman.

rescue Mission
Linda Guest gets some love from her dog, Colby, before putting him on of the kennels in the day center of the Springs Rescue Center. The rescue opened the second half of its resource center — bringing to completion a project that homeless advocates have been seeking for years. The 11,000 square-foot center marks the latest addition to the nonprofit’s burgeoning campus off Las Vegas Street, west of Tejon Street. And it acts as a one-stop shop for myriad services that were either exceedingly hard to find, or spread out across several miles of Colorado Springs. The day center opened in the Spring. (Photo by Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette) 

"Think about, on a daily basis, all the time you have by yourself," Voss said. "And think about a campus environment like this. There isn't really a place for someone to get away and collect their thoughts."

Most important are the roughly 10 offices that opened last week, including two clinic rooms and space for the Department of Human Services, AspenPointe and the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Here, so-called "navigators" can help clients make appointments with agencies offering those services.

Some nonprofits still are moving into the mission. But already, the center's creation has eliminated the need for many people to take the lengthy bus ride past Garden of the Gods Road and Centennial Boulevard, where El Paso County moved most of its services six years ago.

Immediately, demand was high. More than 80 people line up most mornings to access the facility, and the nonprofit counted 2,124 showers taken in August.

It's all modeled off similar campuses in San Antonio and Phoenix, which the nonprofit's leaders visited before breaking ground.

Demand for space still high

"It's comfortable - we have everything," said Socorro Davila, 56. "They take care of us really, really good. I'm very, very grateful."

Left homeless three months ago after a divorce, Davila sought shelter at the mission and has visited the day center nearly every day.

She already has received help applying for Section 8 housing vouchers, and she waited Thursday for an appointment to get food stamps.

"They're treating us really beautiful," she said. "But we need more space."

"We agree," said Voss, the spokesman.

Dozens of people must wait outside before every breakfast and dinner, because the dining hall can only accommodate 65 people at a time.

The issue gained urgency when the Salvation Army announced plans last month to stop serving dinners at nearby Dorchester Park, citing safety concerns and the Springs Rescue Mission's plans to build a bigger dining hall.

For now, the lines will only grow.

The same supply-and-demand problem arose when the mission opened its new shelter. Its leaders initially envisioned men and women staying in the same 168-bed facility. They had no plans for a separate women's shelter.

But beds filled as the temperatures dipped last winter. And that crushing demand for shelter hardly eased over the summer.

The nonprofit now hosts about 265 people a night - a figure expected to rise as the temperatures drop.

The new shelter became a men's-only facility, and the nonprofit converted part of its drug treatment program space into a women's shelter.

Even so, dozens of people must sleep on floor mats every night.

"They heroically took on a huge challenge, and they're meeting it," said Trig Bundgaard, who leads the Coalition for Compassion and Action. "They didn't even expect to have a women's shelter, for God's sake.

"So they're taking their licks and they're plugging along. But people have got to wake up to what our city's civic responsibility is to support that effort."

Rounding out services

Yonker's top concern is safety.

In the final phase, the campus will be closed and a welcome center built - complete with a metal detector, storage space and room for visitors' pets. Doing so should help the nonprofit's leaders better track who's on campus, while ensuring that weapons are no longer brought into the day center or courtyard, Yonker said.

It also will allow the Springs Rescue Mission's social enterprise catering business, which employs people experiencing homelessness, to move back to the campus. That, in turn, could mean more revenue.

Most important, it could mean less time waiting outside for a meal, while erasing the daily trek for homeless people in downtown.

While the Springs Rescue Mission serves breakfast and dinner, lunch still is provided 1½ miles north at the Marian House Soup Kitchen.

"If you've got difficulty walking, and your one meal you get is the soup kitchen downtown, you won't walk to us," Yonker said. "If the feeding is here, then they'll eventually migrate down this direction."

Until then, it still will take burning calories to get some.

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