Homelessness Prevention and Response Coordinator for the City of Colorado Springs
"A Man with a Mission"
by: Stacie S. Gonzalez
Who do I have the pleasure of speaking with today?
I’m Andrew Phelps. I’m the homelessness prevention and response coordinator for the city of Colorado Springs.
How old are you?
And would you mind telling me where you were born?
I'm from Kansas City, Missouri originally. I went to college in Springfield, Missouri, down in the Ozarks, and lived in China for a couple of years. And then I moved here when I was 30 about seven years ago. But I recently bought a home here, so I am not going anywhere, anytime soon. I love it here.
How long have you been the homelessness prevention and response coordinator for Colorado Springs?
I've been with the city for about two-and-a-half years.
And what did you do before you joined the city’s staff?
I worked for New York University. I worked here locally. I did research on Fort Carson. We were looking at how to improve how the Army responds to domestic violence and child abuse on the bases. Before that, though, I worked for Rocky Mountain Human Services here in town as a volunteer coordinator for their homeless outreach program. And before that I worked for Aspen Point here locally where I was an outreach worker. And before that I worked as a homeless outreach worker back in Missouri where I'm from. A lot of my professional experience has been as a homeless outreach worker and kind of led me to where I am today.
So, you've really had a chance to watch the evolution of homelessness in Colorado Springs.
Yeah. I've been here for about seven years. In some ways I have seen improvements and, in some ways, some regression.
What do you do in your role as homelessness prevention and response coordinator?
My position with the city is multi-pronged. I do a few different things. I act as a liaison between city leadership and the community on the issue of homelessness. I also respond to all the complaints around homelessness in our community. That keeps me pretty busy as homelessness is one of the top two complaints in our community. I spend a lot of time responding either via email, telephone, or meeting one-on-one with people that have concerns surrounding homelessness.
I helped lead some of the strategic planning around homelessness and that was made concrete through the Homelessness Initiative. That was a plan that I worked with other city leadership on to respond to homelessness-related issues in our community and hopefully to help improve what's happening. I also work a lot helping collaboration between other cross-departmental relationships within the city and also the community agencies within the city. I'm a member of the governing board of the COC here - the Continuum of Care.
Tell me about the 2019 Colorado Springs Homelessness Initiative. [Andrew looks up at a large, wooden-framed whiteboard bolted to the wall of his office. A long list of goals is written on it in black, red, and blue.]
[Andrew smiles.] One time I came in and someone wrote like, “Number 15 - end homelessness. 16 – find new job.”
What do you do after you’ve achieved everything on the list? Will homelessness ever end?
Well, I hope it improves, I mean that's obviously the goal - to end homelessness. Homelessness is really just a symptom. It's not a panacea. It's a symptom of the failure of many different systems. So, we're just trying to improve.
What are the goals of the Homelessness Initiative?
I'll go over the top 10.
The first goal was to continue educating the public via the HelpCOS campaign. Initially what most people thought it was was these signs which are up around town.
[Andrew points to a sign hanging on his office wall that reads, “Handouts Don’t Help.”]
Yes, it did start with that and that was an attempt at educating the public that there are more effective ways to help those in need and we believe that's by donating directly to the agencies in town that actually employ evidence-based practices and helping people get back on their feet. But that has since grown. Now we have a website - HelpCOS.org - where people can learn about all the different resources in town. Also, people can go to the website to learn how they can get involved, how they can volunteer at numerous agencies, how they can donate their goods, or even their money.
Number two: Increase low-barrier shelter beds. We doubled shelter bed capacity in our community last year and we're really proud of that. That helped ensure that no one in our community is forced to sleep outside. We now have triple digit vacancies in our shelter beds almost nightly in our community. But the other part of that is having adequate shelter bed capacity allows law enforcement to enforce the camping ban ordinances. If there are no shelter beds available, law enforcement isn’t able to enforce those ordinances.
Number three: We're working on adding shelter options for families. The city itself is not directly involved in increasing family bed shelter capacity, but we are involved in discussions with local organizations that have banded together. Family Promise, Catholic Charities, and Partners in Housing have developed a collaborative out of this initiative and they're working actively on trying to start a homeless shelter just for families because that's a real need in our community.
Number four: The homeless work program. We haven't done anything concrete on that yet, but we are exploring how to increase access to employment for those experiencing homelessness in our community most likely through partnering with an agency like Springs Rescue Mission or Catholic Charities, both of whom have work programs already.
Number five: Increased street outreach. That is ongoing. I've developed a pilot collaborative project that actually started this week. So, we have more people out on the street now doing homeless outreach.
Who is out on the street doing outreach?
In the collaborative, it’s the Colorado Springs Fire Department CARES (Community Assistance Referral and Education Services) team. They're leading it. They're working closely with myself, the Colorado Springs Police Department Downtown area Response Team, two outreach workers from Homework Pikes Peak, as well as the outreach workers from Urban Peak. What this pilot is striving to do is targeted, consistent outreach in the downtown area, specifically towards people that are considered super utilizers - people that have the most tickets. To be frank, the top 20 people that have been ticketed the most for illegal activity downtown, the most ER visits, and fire department 911 calls. Our belief is that these high needs utilizers in the downtown area are not only creating most of the complaints happening downtown, but they’re also people that are just in a lot of need and so we're actively going to be providing outreach to them and hopefully getting them connected to services like shelter, mental health services, substance abuse services, and eventually – hopefully - housing. That's the goal.
Number six: Outreach Court has already started. Outreach Court is a specialty court much like Vet Court or Drug Court where this is targeting people experiencing homelessness in our community. This came about because the status quo that was occurring in our community was someone was ticketed for a homelessness-related crime, like camping on public property. Inevitably they don't show up to court then they get a bench warrant. Next time the police find them they're arrested, taken to jail then immediately released because camping on public properties is a non-jailable offense. They’re just getting booked and released, so basically what we have is a very expensive revolving door that connects no one to services. It didn't move them a step closer to housing. So, what this court is doing is providing an option to people. Whenever they're cited for something like camping on public property, they will now be given a choice between the status quo (the fine) or they can agree to meet with a case manager at any number of nonprofits in our community. And we're working closely in conjunction with the nonprofits so that they know what to do whenever someone is sent to them from Outreach Court. Another facet of Outreach Court is “remote warrant removal days.” Head Municipal Judge HayDen Kane comes on video teleconference down at Springs Rescue Mission making people sign up. People come in, they see the judge remotely via video, and he removes their bench warrants and gets them a future court date. That's good for a couple of reasons. It cleans up the court’s docket system, which saves the court money, but also having bench warrants acts as a real barrier for employment and housing for people that are experiencing homelessness. So, we see that as a success and that's ongoing.
Number seven: The lack of affordable housing is really the elephant in the room when it comes to homelessness in every community across the country. We are in no way alone in the affordable housing crisis, but the city has pledged and is actively working on developing an affordable housing plan. I'm just a small part of that. Steve Posey is the manager of the Community Development Division at the city. He's leading that effort, but we are in the middle of developing this affordable housing plan and we're looking at how do we incentivize the development of attainable housing for all in our community? That should be done by the end of this year.
Number eight: The Veteran Housing Fund came about because we currently have veterans in our community that have a housing voucher in hand from the VA. It's like a Section 8 voucher with services, but they remain homeless. Why do they remain homeless? They remain homeless because the voucher rates are set by the federal government and one of the unintended consequences of living in a community with a hot housing market is that those voucher rates are not keeping up with market rate rents. So, landlords look at somebody with a voucher and, say it's $700 for a one bedroom, well, they can charge market rate rent around $950 for that one bedroom. The landlords aren't interested enough to take these vouchers. What this fund will aim to do is we will be able to go to a landlord and say, “If you house this veteran, we will make up that market rate difference. If it's a $200 difference, we'll take that $200 difference, times it by 12, and write you a check right now if you will sign a lease with this homeless vet.” It’ll also have a mitigation aspect. We will guarantee to the landlord that any damages that are caused, we’ll cover those damages. So, I'm working closely with Rocky Mountain Human Services and Peak Military Care Network. Peak Military Care Network will be the fiscal agent, so they will receive the donations, and Rocky Mountain Human Services will be the facilitator of the fund. Case managers working with the homeless veteran will work through Rocky Mountain Human Services to get a check cut from Peak Military Care Network.
Are these initiatives the public can get involved in? Can they donate money to the Veteran Housing Fund? Can companies donate money?
Eventually. We have not started raising money for that fund yet. I'm waiting on an MOU to be signed. It’s getting close, but once that’s signed, yes, definitely, we will be asking the community to donate to that fund. All these things are important. But one of the reasons I'm passionate about the Veterans Housing Fund - a couple of reasons - one of the reasons is that I have prior work history working for a veteran service program, RMHS. So, I'm passionate about helping our veterans, but we're also really close to ending veteran homelessness. We’re close to reaching what's called “functional zero” and that's where homelessness in a community is rare for veterans. It's rare, brief, and non-recurring, so the inflow of newly identified homeless vets will be less than the homeless vets being placed into housing. We only need, I believe, to house another 20 or so homeless vets per month. And this housing fund idea - I didn't come up with this - this is being used in other communities. Oftentimes this housing fund has been like that final piece to reaching “functional zero.” So, I'm really optimistic that this housing fund will get us over that finish line in ending veteran homelessness.
Number nine: We did add Neighborhood Services staff. And Neighborhood Services is another name for Code Enforcement. They rebranded a few years ago. So, these Neighborhood Services staff - three of them to be specific - they clean up illegal camps in our community. And that was important because in the past whenever law enforcement would tag an illegal camp for removal – 48-hour notice - Code Enforcement was not able to get there within 48 hours. So, people weren't really leaving the camps because they knew that it was going to take weeks for people to actually show up to clean it. But now CSPD does a 24-hour notice and because of the additional staff at the city they're there in 24 hours to remove the illegal camp.
Number 10: CSPD did increase their response so a couple of different things changed. We have two additional officers on foot downtown every day now which has been received very positively by business owners and by tourists and shoppers downtown who feel more safe seeing officers on foot. CSPD also added two additional officers to their Homeless Outreach Team.
One thing I didn't hear you mention is the issue with pets and the complication that sometimes presents for people going into shelters because they don't want to leave their pets behind. What do you think about that?
Well, I think that one aspect of being a low-barrier shelter is that you do allow pets. That's one thing that the city, through its funding mechanism, has asked - that shelters do allow pets. So that is happening more now. Springs Rescue Mission allows pets at the shelter. They have kennel space there. I agree that oftentimes a pet is a family member and not for just myself, as a house person. My dog is my best friend, but for somebody experiencing homelessness, that pet might be one of the only things keeping them holding on so I agree that it's very important for shelters to allow pets.
If you were given three wishes, what would they be?
I think my top three wishes would be that every person has a healthy community surrounding them, every person has some sort of employment or activity that makes them feel fulfilled, and that there's housing for all in our community. I believe housing is a universal human right. So, my number one goal is that there would be no people forced to sleep outside every winter in our community.
Do you recall your first experience with a person experiencing homelessness? How did it make you feel? Can you reflect on that?
My biological father, when he was alive, was often on the edge of homelessness. So, I grew up near somebody I cared deeply about - my father – and I witnessed the impact of substance abuse on his life until that disease did, you know, end up taking his life. But even though I grew up witnessing that, I was raised by my mom and my stepdad. I think the first time I literally experienced homelessness was the summer after my freshman year. I moved to Los Angeles, California, and I worked with a missionary that did homeless outreach on skid row in LA. And I lived on skid row for three months and was just thrown into the lion’s den.
In a tent?
No, I would have lived on the floor of the church on skid row, but we did daily homeless outreach and that really opened my eyes. I grew up on the rough edge of middle class, but even so I was still protected from a lot of the real harsh realities that exist in places like skid row in LA. And so really experiencing untreated mental illness and drug addiction and lots of other disturbing things on skid row really did open my eyes to a different part of our country that existed and I had no idea. And when I look back on my life, I think that my experience on skid row the summer after my freshman year of college changed the trajectory of my life. I think that that sparked something in me - that experience there. I wanted to make a difference in our world specifically by ending homelessness by decreasing suffering.
What does feeling a sense of security mean to you? How would you describe it for yourself?
When I think of a sense of security, I think of having a home because a home to me is a place that is safe and it's a place where I can recharge and refill my spirit, so I'm able to continue working in our community.
For members of the community who have no idea how to help people who are experiencing homelessness, what would you suggest?
They can donate their time, their money, or their goods to any number of our wonderful and capable homeless service nonprofits in our community. They can go to HelpCOS.org to learn about all the different homeless service providers and learn how they can get involved. They can speak with their elected leaders. They can show up to city council and share their thoughts on issues surrounding homelessness as well.
Volunteer, donate money to nonprofits, and communicate with your elected officials. We don't live in a big city. If you show up to city council, your voice will be heard.
What are some misconceptions people have about homelessness?
I have not personally seen a massive influx of homeless people moving to our community because it's so easy to be homeless. I just have not seen the data that backs that narrative up. The data that I've seen shows that around 70 percent, year-over-year, of people counted as homeless in our community, became homeless right here in El Paso County. It's a homegrown issue, and it's going to take our community coming together to solve it.
How has your advocacy work for the homeless changed you, if at all?
I don't think my passion has changed. I think one thing that has changed in my professional development is that I had to calm down a little bit and decide that the best way to make a difference is by playing the long game - slow and steady wins the race. I think oftentimes social workers and advocates flame out and get burnt out because they don't take enough time for self-care in their own lives and it doesn't end well. They start out really, really hot and passionate but whenever things don't change quickly enough, they just don't tend to last in the field. I've had to learn that self-care is important and I'm just slowly trying to fight the good fight alongside lots of other people in our community that are also fighting this fight. And honestly, I feel lucky to work for an administration at the city that does care. I truly believe they care and they want to see improvement.
What do you like to do? What are your interests? Do you have a special skill or talent?
Outside of my work, I'm very passionate about pottery, actually. So, I make pottery. I have a wheel and a kiln and I sell my pottery enough that it pays for the hobby. It's something that I wish I had more time to do. I love making art. Another thing I'm passionate about is gardening. I love just tending my yard and working on a garden. I'm also in the middle of attempting to hike all of the 14ers in Colorado. I've done like 26 of them so far, so I have a ways to go.
Name a lesson you’ve learned while advocating for the homeless.
There is … I won't name names, but there's a gentleman that was a regular downtown, flying a sign, and I took the time to get to know him and we found out that he had family in another town that thought he was deceased. I was able to help reconnect him with his family and that was really moving to me. They ended up coming out here, and they got the relationship started again and that individual is now in housing. I think to me it was moving not just because he was able to get reunited with his family, but I was able to get him into the housing coordinated entry system. And now he's helped. So, the lesson I learned is that case management and outreach work. There are many service providers who are actively working on getting people housed in our community. Often it just takes building a relationship with people surviving outside and helping guide them through the system and they can get housed.
If you were a parent talking to a child about homelessness, what would you say?
That’s a tough one. I don't have kids yet. I would really have to think about that. I would like to think that I would say that they're a person just like you and me. They're just struggling, and they've had bad things happen to them in their life, and they need help. And I would tell them that it's our job to help them as humans.
Andrew, I really appreciate your time today. Is there anything else you would like to talk about or for readers to know?
You’re welcome. I would just ask that people get involved. I don't want to at all disparage some of the anger that's in our community about more needs to be done. I think there's a place for that. But I also think that there's a place for the anger and the passion to turn into action. So, I would just ask that people get involved either by volunteering or working at a homeless service provider here in town and by communicating with their elected officials.
August 28, 2019