In about-face, Salvation Army looks at reopening homeless shelter in Colorado Springs

By Jakob Rodgers Updated: December 6, 2017 at 10:59 am • Published: December 5, 2017 0
photo - Darin Taylor and Theresa Graham organize their belongings across the street from the Winter Warming Shelter on Monday, April 18, 2016. (photo by Jerilee Bennett/The Gazette)
Darin Taylor and Theresa Graham organize their belongings across the street from the Winter Warming Shelter on Monday, April 18, 2016. (photo by Jerilee Bennett/The Gazette)

Breaking a 2-year-old promise, the Salvation Army on Tuesday proposed reopening its controversial Weber Street homeless shelter - arguing the city's bed shortage left it no choice but to renege on a promise not to return.

The nonprofit unveiled its proposal during a meeting with Lowell neighborhood residents, outlining plans for an emergency warming shelter that could sleep up to 150 people a night at its shuttered building, 505 S. Weber St.

The about-face stemmed from one concern: saving lives and limbs from frostbite and hypothermia as the temperatures continue to drop, said Capt. David Kauffman, who leads the Salvation Army's El Paso County chapter.

"This is a very important facility, with a very real potential to save lives," said Andrew Phelps, the city's homelessness prevention and response coordinator.

Reactions from Lowell residents ranged from outright resistance to cautious optimism. And in nearly every case, residents expressed deep distrust of city officials and the nonprofit - citing several broken promises in the past to better manage the facility.

For many, Tuesday's decision merely added to that list of grievances.

Jim Spinato, who owns the nearby Water Works Car Wash & Detail Center, complained of homeless people wandering through his property and breaking a window when the shelter was previously open.

"The Salvation Army had two years to get it right," Spinato said. "The second year was really no better than the first year."

"I'd really like another part of the community to have the opportunity to host a shelter," he added.

But other Lowell residents were slightly more receptive to the latest proposal.

Lisa Penhaven, who lives a few blocks to the south, said she was "cautiously encouraged," though she remained concerned the latest proposal was "too good to be true."

"All of the things we hoped for, they seemed to give to us out of the gate," Penhaven said.

The building first opened as a shelter in fall 2014 - offering a six-month haven for people to escape the cold. It was unique in that admission was based on behavior, not sobriety.

And almost immediately, demand for beds was immense.

Its operators only planned to house 100 people a night. But it routinely had about 120 the first year, and 140 the second year - forcing it to routinely up its capacity.

In all, roughly 1,500 people spent at least one night at the Weber Street shelter each year it was open.

Last year, the location remained dark while Springs Rescue Mission opened its new 168-bed shelter - another low-barrier facility that promised to remain open year-round.

Still, that shortage persists.

Springs Rescue Mission has begun turning people away due to capacity issues, despite having expanded its capacity to 300 people.

Meanwhile, hundreds of additional people are sleeping outside.

The Point in Time homeless survey in January showed 457 people living unsheltered across El Paso County - a 47 percent increase from the same point in 2016, recently released results show.

As with past years, the Salvation Army's reopened Weber Street location would only operate during the cold-weather season - likely mid-December through mid-April, Phelps said.

But it would differ in several other ways.

While the previous shelter was open every night, the latest proposal calls for it to open only when temperatures fall to 38 degrees or colder, Kauffman said.

Security cameras also have been installed, and a security firm will be hired, Kauffman said. The shelter's doors would open at 6 p.m. and residents would be told to leave at 9 a.m. - extended hours to avoid people flooding Weber Street during rush hour.

People lining up to enter would be asked to do so in the building's back parking lot, minimizing loitering along Weber Street, Kauffman said.

And the shelter's staff will be tasked with picking up trash throughout the surrounding neighborhood - particularly on days when the shelter doesn't open.

The program is expected to cost up to $250,000, Kauffman said. None of that would come from the nonprofit, but rather from local organizations, Colorado Springs and El Paso County, he said.

Colorado Springs police Lt. Mike Lux, who heads the department's Homeless Outreach Team, backed the proposal - arguing "it's going to benefit everybody."

Not everyone was convinced.

David Browning, also a Lowell resident, said he still harbored safety concerns - particularly that people visiting the shelter would get hit by cars passing on Weber Street. He lamented a sense of inevitability about the proposal.

"They have no other options," Browning said. "They're just going to do it."

Jennifer DeWoody, who works two blocks from the proposed shelter, came to the Salvation Army's defense.

"This is incredible, life-saving work," DeWoody said.

City officials said they were uncertain whether the Downtown Review Board must issue a conditional use permit for the latest shelter to open, as it did in the past.

That's because the new shelter wouldn't be open every night - only in emergencies, said Ryan Tefertiller, the city's urban planning manager.

"We're still evaluating the proper process and obligations we have to get this shelter open," Tefertiller said.

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