COLORADO SPRINGS — One of the most significant problems tied to exponential growth in Colorado Springs over the past decade is the rising number of homeless living on the streets or in temporary housing due to lack of resources or cost.
Recently, the City of Colorado Springs named Crystal Karr its news homelessness prevention and response coordinator. I had a chance to sit down with her, one on one, to talk about the challenges related to this growing problem.
First and foremost, she told me that she is excited and hopeful about her new position and her ability to make a difference despite the fact there are too many people in the community that need some place to live or start over again to build up from where they are, "It's a complex issue whether you're talking about seniors, veterans, individuals or families," Karr told me.
Karr believes that you need to establish some kind of consistent place to live for these people as the building block to moving up, and she believes that given that opportunity, most will take advantage of the opportunity, "I believe the majority of people that I worked with really wanted to make a positive difference and to get ahead and get stable and get at the housing on their own,
where they're independent."
But that's easier said than done in an environment where the cost of living, particularly housing, continues to rise and wages remain stagnant.
The term affordable housing, it seems, is a reach as it relates to what it actually costs to build and place these folks looking for a permanent home, but that is her top priority.
While there is funding available, she told me the money available is either drying up or doesn't go far as it did just two years ago.
The latest numbers from the "Point In Time" survey of the homeless population in the Pikes Peak region showed the following:
- 1,400 people experiencing homelessness
- Over 1,100 living in emergency shelters or transitional housing
- Nearly 400 are considered chronically homeless
- A huge increase, over 20% in the number of veterans and young adults aged 15 to 25 with a permanent place to call home
One of the main advantages Karr believes she brings to the table is her prior experience serving the homeless population locally.
Karr previously served as executive director of Family Promise in Colorado Springs, a local non-profit that primarily serves families trying to get off the street and into a permanent home.
She believes that the relationships and collaboration she built up during that time will serve her well with other local organizations to work toward the same goal.
And there is so much more to this challenging job than just putting a roof over someone's head.
There are mental health issues that need to be dealt with, drug and alcohol abuse, transportation and finding employment for someone who is living out of their car, and Karr understands this.
Karr told me, "So when you're struggling with mental health issues or post-traumatic stress and you don't have the basics of a safe place to stay for the evening, it makes it really hard to remember what day it is, let alone make it to your psychiatric appointment and those kinds of things."
A key part of her new job is coordinating resources and support, putting the right people with the right agency, public, private and non-profit, and connecting those agencies with those who need their help.
However, this can be a very expensive pursuit. Recently, two homeless outreach facilities, Family Promise and City Hope closed due to dwindling financial support.
I asked her how do you change that environment and get more grants or private donations to pay for these services, and she said "For those agencies, they absolutely have to do a combination of getting donors, private donors who are committed and caring about these issues and wanting to help others and combining that with grants, whether those are federal or private grants."
Make no mistake about it; some progress is being made locally.
Just in the past week, the grand opening of Working Fusion at Mill Street, a tiny home community, opened. It's transitional housing for young adults aged 18 to 25.
It's also what's called the Continuum of Care which brings together multiple organizations, non-profits, faith-based groups, Colorado Springs police and fire homeless outreach teams, and Homeward Pikes Peak.
It's critical that the word gets out to those struggling to turn their lives around. Lately, many people have experienced homelessness for the first time and the unbelievable stress and pressure that is put on themselves and their families.
Karr told me, "You need somebody on the other side looking at you and saying, 'I see you and I see that you are valuable and of worth,' and so the more that we can get providers that are able to do that, that really helps lift those people up."
Karr says that federal dollars are coming in as well to help offset the cost of building more affordable homes.
While she is still transitioning into her new role and building on what is already in place, she is particularly encouraged by a city program called Work-COS.
The program employs the homeless with the city for six to twelve months, a hand up to permanent employment. In fact, Karr says three people have been hired full-time now and she hopes to expand that program and the opportunities it provides.
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