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Colorado Springs touts itself as a national leader on homelessness. Unhoused people beg to differ.

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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — While he was living on the streets of Colorado Springs, Josh Koch’s dog was treated better than he was.

Koch has been spit on, beat up and harassed. Police brutality is a weekly occurrence, he said. He said cops have taken everything he owns and other houseless people have attacked him. Drivers he encounters scream “get a job” and hurl insults at him while he keeps his head pointed to the ground.

His dog, Bolt, is usually greeted with kind eyes and a friendly smile.

“My voice means nothing. I’m disabled, that doesn't mean nothing,” Koch said. “I am worth less than a dog to the city here.”

Koch’s story isn’t unique. Rocky Mountain PBS interviewed 36 people experiencing homelessness across Colorado Springs over the course of three months. Asked about their experiences, unhoused residents described police sweeps in frigid temperatures where all their belongings were taken, staying in overcrowded and unhygienic shelters, losing friends to drug overdoses and being turned away from employment and housing opportunities because of their appearance.

“Cops are not friendly here to people who don’t have a home,” Koch added. “Because you’re homeless, you’re worthless to everybody in society.”

Josh and Gina Koch, mother and son, sit at Vermijo Park with their dog, Bolt. The two camped at Vermijo Park until Josh left Colorado for Iowa months ago. (Zach Ben-Atmos/Rocky Mountain PBS) 

Conflicting realities

The Colorado Springs mayor, city staff and those who run its shelters tell a different story: One of success so great that Colorado Springs had cities around the nation asking, “what is Colorado Springs doing right?”

“The number of cities that are knocking on our door asking what we’re doing right is huge,” said Colorado Springs Mayor Yemi Mobolade. “There is much to celebrate, but a lot more ahead of us.”

Mobolade attributed much of the city’s success to numbers reflected in its Point in Time Count, an annual survey that measures the number of homeless residents in the city. The survey is conducted in the last 10 days of January each year. The 2023 count showed a 10% reduction in those experiencing homelessness. It found that  1,302 people are experiencing homelessness in Colorado Springs, with 374 living on the streets. That number is the lowest the city has recorded since 2016.

“Unlike many U.S. cities, I’m really proud of the work that we’re doing and the strong collaboration among local providers,” Mobolade said. “When you see those numbers, you can attribute that directly to our efforts.”

In his “first 100 days in office” plan, Mobolade listed homelessness as a public safety issue, with housing and infrastructure just below it as separate issues. The administration’s plan states “identify and pursue solutions to police recruitment and retention challenges and efforts to solve the homeless crisis.”

“The pastor in me will care for our homeless residents with great compassion,” Mobolade said in an interview with Rocky Mountain PBS. “The parent in me is really concerned about the public safety realities.”

The city’s budget shows it spends over $6.2 million on homelessness each year. More than $2.8 million supports the Colorado Springs Police Department’s Homeless Outreach Team and Downtown Area Response Team. The second-largest item in the city’s homelessness budget is cleanup efforts, performed mainly by the Colorado Springs Quality of Life Team, which is tasked with removing items from an encampment after police have either arrested or ticketed houseless residents living in the camp.

Tough love

Tears trickled down Colleen’s face as she stared at the orange Home Depot shopping cart in front of her.

The carts holds a pot of purple flowers, a laundry hamper for dirty clothes and a garbage bag for clean ones, a cardboard box of shoes and butterfly-printed cloth draped on top.

This represents the entirety of Colleen’s possessions, and the police told her she needs to move it. First, she had to go through each item one by one so the police could search for weapons or drugs. Her options were to accept a ride to a shelter or take a citation for living outside. If she doesn’t appear in court to deal with the ticket, her option is jail.

“Everything I own comes out of a dumpster,” Colleen said. “My life is right here.”

Colleen used to work at the 7-Eleven next to Wagner Park, on the east side of Colorado Springs. Her $15/hour wage wasn’t nearly enough to afford an apartment, she said, so she fell into homelessness.

Like most houseless people, Colleen wants housing and a job, but finding those things is nearly impossible for someone in her circumstances.

“Once you’re here, it’s really hard to get out, because you are dirty, you don't have ID, you don't have stuff because it gets stolen all the time, so it’s hard to get out of here,” Colleen said. “Nobody cares about the homeless. They just want to get us out of sight.”

Colleen’s encampment was raided by Homeless Outreach Team (HOT) officers in July. Officers tried to convince her to go to Springs Rescue Mission, the city’s largest homeless shelter. Colleen said she has been to the rescue mission before and prefers life on the streets.

“You flat-out told us you won’t go there because they won’t let you have drugs,” one officer says to Colleen. “That’s the cost of getting off the streets. Giving up the drugs.”

“Have you ever even walked inside the Springs Rescue Mission, and you’ve been kicked out at 5 a.m. during rain and snow and have no place to go?” Colleen responds. “Because I have.”

“No,” the officer said back. “I haven’t.”

The city’s Homeless Outreach Team is composed of five police officers whose job it is to enforce the city’s camping ban. The team receives dozens of complaints each day from housed residents about illegal camping, trash on city trails and theft from nearby businesses whose staff believe unhoused people are shoplifting. Officers also leave warning notes near encampments to alert those camping that they have 24 hours to move their belongings or they will be ticketed.

A warning note from Colorado Springs Police Department telling unhoused people to move their belongings or risk a ticket. (Zach Ben-Atmos, Roky Mountain PBS) 

After police have written tickets or made arrests, a team of city workers wearing lime green and bright orange vests come to the scene with bulldozers, trucks and tools. 

The Colorado Springs Quality of Life Team is tasked with taking belongings from homeless encampments. Quality of Life Team members said they try not to take important papers or living essentials, but dozens of houseless people said it is common for all of their belongings to disappear after a raid, forcing them to start all over with applying for new IDs and finding new camping supplies. 

Sgt. Olav Chaney, the police officer who supervises the team, said they have transitioned over the years from a softer approach to one he called “tough love.”

Until 10 years ago, Chaney said, the city didn’t have enough shelter beds to provide a bed for every person living on the street, which meant taking unhoused people from their camps would be considered “cruel and unusual punishment.” Now, Springs Rescue Mission has enough beds to shelter everyone who needs one and boasts a motto “we won’t turn anyone away.”

Because of this, HOT officers encourage the unhoused people they ticket to accept help from Springs Rescue Mission. Chaney believes shelter is the first step to a better life, but the person being offered help has to want it.

“We’re not going to just allow the city ordinances to be broken and laws to be broken, we’re going to do everything we can to keep the city clean and keep it safe,” Chaney said. “We have a system in place where these folks have options, and they choose not to take those options.”

In what he describes as “tough love,” Chaney believes law enforcement has a responsibility to write tickets, make arrests and discipline people for living on the streets. The “lay-down-the-law” approach, he believes, will ensure that Colorado Springs does not experience what he said other cities of its size are seeing: tents scattered around the town with little consequence.

“We take more of that law enforcement approach where we say, ‘you cannot camp, we’re not going to allow you to camp and you cannot dirty this city up,’” Chaney said. “If we didn’t do what we did, it would blow up and get out of proportion with camps all over the place and trash all over the place.”

While HOT officers believe their job — and the way they do it — is essential, those who bear the brunt of “tough love,” said the approach is cruel.

“They’re criminalizing poverty, they’re criminalizing mental illness and they’re criminalizing substance issues people have,” said Erin Elizabeth Ward, a houseless woman who was cited for camping during a HOT raid on the east side of town. “I’m very angry with the way we are treated.”

One person’s help is another’s hurt 

In the 36 interviews conducted by Rocky Mountain PBS, 34 houseless residents pointed to the police as their biggest problem. The other two said it was frigid winter temperatures.

“The HOT Team is more harassment than it is helping,” said Marc Trujillo, a houseless man on the west side of town. “When you take a person’s belongings that help them survive out here, that’s not right. These people are evil.”

When the city takes your belongings, Trujillo said many are left with no choice but to take tents and sleeping bags for other unhoused people. No one wants to steal from others on the streets, he said, but many don’t have a choice.

“It’s the homeless stealing from the homeless to survive,” Trujillo said. “It’s madness.”

Koch, who recently left Colorado Springs in hopes of a better life elsewhere, said “tough love,” is a misnomer. His only experiences with officers were brutal.

“We have nothing and the police take all that we have to survive,” Koch said. “The police are the bullies of this city.”

Koch said he can’t stay in a shelter due to his epilepsy and that he can’t save up enough money to afford housing, so living on the streets with his mother — Gina Koch — is the only option. During Josh’s seven years in town, the two sometimes took turns sleeping inside a friend’s truck, but for the most part, they camp at Vermijo Park.

Vermijo Park, across the street from tourist-heavy Old Colorado City, is a gathering place for houseless people. The park is close to Westside Cares, a social services organization, and those who live in the park say it’s special to them. The park is a place where they gather with friends, share supplies and try to distract one another from the harsh realities of homelessness.

On a cold April morning, police swept the camps at Vermijo. A thick fog covered the park, its grass soaked from a rainstorm the night before.

The Koch’s were sharing a tarp covered in a thin layer of ice. It wasn’t ideal, but it was what they had.

The two left to get supplies from Westside Cares in the morning, and they came back to police cars surrounding the area. Josh grew angry and began shouting profanities at the officers. His mother sobbed while she watched cleanup crews take their tarp and other belongings.

“Cops rob you of your things, literally, and they don't care about you,” Koch said. “We have nothing and they’re robbing us.”

Others said the nature of camp cleanups is cruel at its core.

“The HOT Team is our worst enemy. They say they're here to help us, but they ain’t here to help us, they’re here to kill us,” said Skittles, a man who lives at Vermijo Park. “You take somebody's stuff during the day, they don’t have enough time to get any gear before nighttime hits and it's sub-freezing. To me, that’s cold-blooded murder.”

Most houseless people said they try to do the right thing: don’t leave trash out, clean up others’ litter, don’t use drugs in public and be respectful. But even “upstanding” behavior doesn’t absolve a person of citations and police cruelty.

“Some of my camps have been dirty but I clean up the best I can,” Trujillo said. “It’s a plague that they call the homeless. We’re not a plague, we’re people, too.”

Soup and salvation

Chaney and his team want Erin Elizabeth Ward to go to Springs Rescue Mission. They want the same for every houseless person they come in contact with. Springs Rescue Mission will give the person a shelter bed, require sobriety and provide pathways to jobs and housing. 

To police officers, it’s a no-brainer. The choice is living on the streets and dealing with harsh weather, theft and tickets, or staying indoors at a shelter that can get you on track to a better life.

“There’s so many times that they make excuses not to go to Springs Rescue Mission,” Chaney said. “A lot of these folks aren’t used to following the rules.”

For those who’ve stayed in Springs Rescue Mission, the options feel murkier.

“They separate me from my husband who has severe mental health issues, they take our dogs from us, they do their best to indoctrinate you into their way of thinking,” Ward said. “They’re in the business of salvation as well as soup, but that is the last thing people need when they are dealing with all of this.”

Springs Rescue Mission is a Christian shelter. Some of the shelter’s funding comes from the city, some from local churches and some from donors. But the shelter is outward and unapologetic in its Christian values.

“We get our instructions from Christ and the example he set for caring for people, loving people and meeting people where they’re at,” said Travis Williams, Springs Rescue Mission chief development officer. “The heartbeat of the Christian ethos, for us, is that Christ loved us so much, therefore we need to love others.”

Springs Rescue Mission provides meals and shelter beds to all who want them, defining themselves as a low-barrier shelter. It’s a first-of-its-kind shelter in the state, where there are enough beds for everyone who wants one and those in the shelter have access to every resource they need on the same campus, including kennels for pets. 

But its Passport to Hope Program — which provides job training, more independent shelters and case management — requires a commitment to Christian-based programming, according to a document obtained by Rocky Mountain PBS.

“The Hope program is a Christian faith-based program. Are you willing to commit to Christian faith-based classes and church activities?” The document asks, alongside a list of other questions about time commitments, sobriety and compliance.

When a person first enters the shelter, they’re placed in a large room with  others who are often recently out of jail or off the streets. Those who’ve stayed in the entry-level shelter said it’s loud and they risk their belongings being stolen. 

“There are no resources here. You go to the shelters, they’re dirty, they’re nasty, people steal your stuff,” Colleen said. “We need to make a place to live where we can be comfortable regardless of the weather. The shelters are not it.”

Others said going to the shelter is an absolute last resort.

“I will sleep with my worst enemy beside me before I go to the Springs Rescue Mission,” said Tammy Timberlake, an unhoused woman. “The people there are horrible.”

Williams said shelter staff do their best to keep it clean and foster a positive environment for those trying to climb out of homelessness. The only catch, Williams said, is those in the shelter and its programs must want it all to work.

“Our goal as an organization goes so much further than just emergency services,” Williams said. “We’re trying to see the restoration of individuals that come onto campus.”

Williams said staff do their best to provide a sanitary and desirable shelter. Showers, laundry, warm meals and a large outdoor campus are all available. For Williams, these options seem much better than isolation on the streets.

“For us, this is so much more compassionate than being alone on the street,” Williams said.“Very seldom does somebody’s life start to move in a positive situation if they’re left alone on the streets.”

And the programs have worked for many who’ve gone through them.

Dominic Fields, a Springs Rescue Mission resident in the Passport to Hope program, makes grab-and-go sandwiches for those traveling through the Colorado Springs Airport 

“It’s a program fit for people who are wanting that change and are sick of the addiction and feeling lost,” said Dominic Fields, who was houseless and addicted to Xanax before entering the shelter and its programs. “I started putting my best effort into it, reading the Bible, going to Bible study, doing devotions every morning, going to church on Sunday and I’ve seen a big change in myself.”

Fields said he was skeptical at first, but he’s been sober for almost a year now — his longest stretch of sobriety since he began using substances 11 years ago. 

“What's different about it this time is I actually want it this time,” Fields said. “That’s god working with me.”

Others said the program has changed parts of their identity and presentation.

“I did grow up in a Christian household, but also, I’m an out-of-closet homosexual,” said Samuel Melina, a 21-year-old resident at Springs Rescue Mission. “It’s sometimes a back-and-forth thing of faith and sexuality.”

Samuel Melina sits outside Springs Rescue Mission. (Zach Ben-Atmos/Rocky Mountain PBS) 

Melina said the way he presents himself has changed after time at Springs Rescue Mission.

“I grew up being overboard when it comes to my sexuality. I would be flamboyant in my voice and my hand gestures. I was overexerting that,” Melina said. “I was making my sexuality my personality.”

In and out of the system

Once a houseless person is cited for camping or trespassing, they’re issued a required appearance date in Colorado Springs Municipal Court. If they don’t appear in court — 60% of defendants don’t — they’re issued an arrest warrant and taken to the El Paso County Jail. 

When a person pleads guilty to their charge of camping or trespassing, a judge has two options: a formal route of required meetings with a probation officer or an informal path, where the defendant is sent to what’s called “navigators.”

Navigators work through the Colorado Springs Fire Department’s Homeless Outreach Program, the resource-based, non-enforcement arm of the city’s response to homelessness. To ease a transportation barrier, navigators sit in court to greet houseless people and offer resources. The ultimate goal, Judge Hayden Kane said, is to get folks to Springs Rescue Mission and then into permanent housing.

“The responsibility is to get these folks resources to hopefully get them to a better place that seems to serve all citizens,” said Kane, the presiding judge and court administrator for the Colorado Springs Municipal Court. 

The unfortunate reality for many, social service workers said, is a revolving door of jail bars. When someone is released from jail and placed on a 700-person list for housing options, the person often ends up back on the street, and the cycle repeats.

“This is sort of a tired thing to say but I think one of the biggest struggles of people experiencing homelessness is the dehumanization of people experiencing homelessness,” said Kristy Milligan, CEO of Westside Cares, a social services organization in Colorado Springs. “There are a lot of bureaucratic hoops that require the kind of linear thinking that people having the worst day of their lives just don’t have.”

While many appear in court multiple times, Kane said judges try to avoid a cycle of pushing people in and out of jail with endless tickets and warrants. Instead, he said, the process hopes to meet people where they’re at and get them off the streets. 

Since the program started in 2022, navigators have worked with 135 people across 329 cases. Navigators helped 66 people fill out housing applications.

“There’s a level of trust with the homeless population and the fire department,” Kane said. “There’s more levels of trust than the HOT team from Colorado Springs Police Department.”

Unhoused people spoke fondly of the Homeless Outreach Program. Its staff give out hand warmers, blankets and other survival supplies. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, staff distributed hotel vouchers. 

“They were very pleasant, actually,” said Amy Goldsburry, an unhoused woman who calls herself 'the godmother of the West Side.' “That’s kind of rare out here.”

While fire department staff said they work closely with the police, they see their roles completely different. Where police enforce laws some see as harmful, HOP members take a more compassionate approach.

“What it boils down to is we are not enforcement. We are resource navigation,” said Amanda Smith, community behavioral health coordinator with the Colorado Springs Fire Department. “Getting ticketed and having to pack all their things up and move is a traumatic thing for people.”

Anneliese Davis, behavioral health navigator with the fire department, said the fire department’s help is often limitless. As long as the needs requested by a houseless person are legal, ethical and reasonable, fire department navigators will do their best to meet them.

“Do the thing you need to do for your client to help them get to their goal,” Davis said. “We’ve gotten to the point with our clients where they trust us so much that they’ll leave their animals with us.”

Survival at all costs

In the city’s 2022 point in time count, 14% of unhoused residents cited substance use disorder as their reason for living on the streets. But harm reductionists and health care workers said the number of unhoused people who use drugs is much higher.

“Substance use disorder does become a significant barrier to exiting homelessness,” said PJ Higgins, the opioid prevention project manager for the Community Health Partnership. “It’s not as black and white as if you mandate that people go to treatment, they will achieve recovery.”

Higgins said methamphetamine is responsible for the majority of overdoses in El Paso County, though much of the county’s meth is laced with fentanyl, an opiate painkiller stronger than heroin and morphine. Oftentimes, Higgins said, a user will take methamphetamine without knowing it includes fentanyl, leading to accidental overdose. 

And many unhoused people said they use drugs not for fun, but for survival. Amphetamines help them stay awake and protect their belongings, and opioids, benzodiazepines and “downers” help ease anxiety in traumatic circumstances.

“Pretty much all of them do meth,” said Stephen Copeland, a houseless man, of others living outside. “This is probably the meth capital of the United States. It’s everywhere. You can’t get away from it.”

Being caught with illegal drugs can often exacerbate a person’s court battles. What could’ve been a simple camping citation can turn into a possession or even distribution charge, increasing potential jail time and drawing out the process of moving through the legal system.

“We’re talking about humans here and it's really important to recognize that we have to meet people where they’re at in a community,” said Evan Caster, senior manager for homeless initiatives at the Community Health Partnership. “Our most vulnerable can be easily taken advantage of.”

Scarce solutions 

Tammy Timberlake never imagined she’d be camping at parks and sleeping in cars. She never saw herself outside food pantries waiting for her next meal or praying for her name to be called on the list for housing vouchers.

“I’ve had conversations with people where I’ll say, the only difference between me and you is I go back to my tent and you go back to your house with your locked door,” Timberlake said. “We’re trying and trying to get out of it, but the more we try, we’re still stuck here.”

Timberlake’s kids played soccer, she volunteered in their schools and drove them to practice. But she became homeless after a financial crisis. She spent her first two nights of homelessness in a shelter, but the experience was so bad, she chose to camp instead.

“We lose a lot out here,” Timberlake said. “We lose friends, we lose people we’re close to, we just lose a lot of people.”

Timberlake’s best friend, Semmone Calmes, recently received a housing voucher after years of homelessness. She found a cottage she loved near Colorado College and the prospect of having a place to call her own almost felt too good to be true.

“Once you become homeless, it’s hard to get out of,” Calmes said.

And just as she feared, her cottage didn’t pass an inspection and it had lead paint. Calmes and her case manager at Homeward Pikes Peak are hopeful she can still move in, but the property manager and owner do not have a timeline on when that might happen. 

In the meantime, Calmes is living with Donald “Kowboy” Parks, a popular name around the West Side homeless community. Kowboy recently moved into an apartment after years of homelessness.

Those who are seeking affordable housing vouchers fill out an application called Vulnerability Index - Service Prioritization Decision Assistance Tool, or VI-SPDAT. The Pikes Peak Continuum of Care — a team of city officials and service providers — then meets to discuss each applicant and assess their vulnerability and how soon they should receive a voucher. In a perfect world, those who are most vulnerable would get housing first, but many in the Pikes Peak Continuum of Care said the system is flawed.

“The population we’re really trying to reach is often very hard to reach because of a lack of internet and phone access,” Caster said. “We want to make sure that emergency shelters are setting people up for permanent housing solutions.”

Caster said the city currently has about 17,000 units that someone making less than 50% of the area median income could afford. In order to meet the need, the city needs about 37,000. 

“We are going to have to look to developers and look at some of those policy needs that create affordable rental units,” Caster said. “Lack of inventory is one of the biggest barriers.”

But Caster said there’s also reason to remain hopeful. In April 2021, the city broke ground on The Commons, a 50-unit permanent supportive apartment complex. The first residents moved in at the end of April 2023. Rocky Mountain Communities, a Denver-based developer, oversees property management of The Commons, while Homeward Pikes Peak, a direct services organization, offers support for residents through job training, mental health treatment, case management, and more programming.

The Commons is Colorado Springs’ third permanent supportive housing complex. (Zach Ben-Atmos/Rocky Mountain PBS) 

The Commons was the city’s third permanent supportive housing complex, with a fourth on the way. Progress is slower than it should be, Caster said. But some progress is better than nothing.

“We believe shelter is a good option, but ultimately, we’re trying to get folks into permanent housing,” Caster said. “It may take several encounters before you’re really able to talk about where someone can go.”

Other service providers have high hopes for those living on the streets. Life is more bleak than most could imagine, they said. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

“People should get mansions after living on the streets,” said Kristy Milligan. “We can hope.”

Alison Berg is a reporter at Rocky Mountain PBS and can be reached at

Zach Ben-Amots contributed to this report.

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Colorado experience

Living Unhoused

As more people flocked to Colorado Springs, its housing stock dwindled, simultaneously driving prices up and leaving many without a home. The city has responded primarily with an emphasis on law enforcement and criminalization of those living on the streets.

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