This story is one of several in a Rocky Mountain PBS series documenting homelessness in Colorado Springs. As the topic is debated by politicians and mayoral candidates promising solutions, those living in it share their stories.
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — After years of housing insecurity — sharing a single bed in a small bedroom with her five-year-old son, and spending time living together in a trailer without heat, electricity or water — Desiree Stucking was overjoyed when she was handed the key to her future apartment at The Commons, a new permanent supportive housing complex on the east side of Colorado Springs.
As her move-in date approached, Stucking and her son, Akai Peace, toured their new apartment with Rocky Mountain PBS. She told her son how excited she was for him to have what she called a “real childhood” — a place to keep toys, have sleepovers with friends, and even a table to do homework. In turn, Akai ran around the apartment, gleefully opening doors and cabinets.
Colorado Springs is in the midst of a major housing crisis and a growing homeless population. The Commons offers a rare, permanent solution for unhoused people seeking a home. This new complex presents a rare insight into the sheer amount of work required for developers to build affordable housing in Colorado, and for residents like Stucking to qualify.
On May 2 — the day Stucking was slated to move in — her worst nightmare came true. She received a phone call from a Commons representative informing her that her earned income was over the required threshold for affordable housing.
Rocky Mountain Communities — a Denver-based affordable housing nonprofit responsible for property management of The Commons — relies on external organizations to analyze the finances of housing applicants. After analyzing one month of Stucking’s income, Rocky Mountain Communities was told that she earned slightly more than 30% of the El Paso County area median income — disqualifying her from residence at The Commons by a mere $40.
Stucking learned she would no longer be able to move into the apartment she and her son had been so excited to see, after having already toured her "future home."
“I felt like my child and I were exploited,” Stucking said, referring to the interview she was asked to give Rocky Mountain PBS. “It was kind of a slap in the face, and I felt used.”
Stucking’s income fluctuates, which the people responsible for accounting had not taken into consideration in their earliest calculations. She refused to accept that her income be miscalculated, though, and fought back for her spot in The Commons.
“What was the point of asking me to speak and having me tell my story if they weren’t actually going to help me?” Stucking asked. “If it weren’t for me being vocal and really caring about housing for me and my son, where would we be?”
Six days later, accountants re-evaluated Stucking’s income and deemed she met the guidelines after all. She and her son could move in. While relieved, Stucking said those six days of housing purgatory were agonizing. She worries for others in her situation.
The Commons: Permanent housing for homeless families
Parenting in poverty
After a domestic violence incident in 2021 left Stucking unable to work, she said she fell into a cycle of homelessness.
"I was beaten in my sleep and had my face fractured," Stucking said. "So I was not able to work."
Though she never camped out under a bridge or in a tent, spending months in a trailer without no running water or heat was the beginning of Stucking's homeless journey. The trailer belonged to her son’s father, who let them stay to avoid living on the streets. But a trailer with no utilities shared between three people hardly felt like home.
“The biggest and hardest part about it was watching my son go to school every day and making friends, and coming back home to nothing,” Stucking said. “‘I wanted him to have everything — and we’re coming back home to nothing.”
Stucking endured several brutal physical attacks from her then-partner in 2020 and 2021. Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic and the trauma of domestic violence, Stucking lost her job and was forced to raise her son within grim circumstances.
“Being homeless with my son definitely made me feel like I was a bad parent, because there are a lot of stereotypes that go with being homeless with a child,” Stucking said. “You hear you’re a deadbeat parent or you’re a drug addict or you’re lazy, so it did make me look at myself differently.”
Desiree Stucking holds her 5-year-old son as they tour their new apartment at The Commons. After being guaranteed a spot, Stucking was told her income was $40 over the required threshold. She fought for nearly a week and was eventually told she had her housing back.
Before moving into The Commons, Stucking has been renting a room from a stranger in south Colorado Springs. But without an official lease, she worried her landlord could decide to kick them out at any point.
Stucking said she looks forward to providing for her son in ways she has always wanted to. Now that she has been approved to move in to The Commons, that is a real possibility.
“For me, having a place like this that we can call ours will definitely change the way I feel about myself,” Stucking said.
Her son has not had a birthday party in years, for example, and Stucking hopes to welcome his next birthday properly.
“The part I’m most excited about is I can actually look at myself in the mirror and feel like a real mom now,” Stucking said. “As a parent, you’re supposed to provide. Not having my kid be able to live freely as a child or have his own space, has been heartbreaking over the journey of being homeless.”
What went wrong?
Stucking can’t forget that her dream almost didn’t come true.
The discrepancy with her qualifying income still looms. Because The Commons is funded largely through the Low Income Housing Tax Credits, or LIHTC, those managing the site said they have to be meticulous in ensuring every resident’s income falls at or below $19,350, which is 30% of El Paso County’s area median income.
LIHTC came about during the 1980s as a private way to subsidize low-income and affordable rental units. Dontae Latson, CEO of Rocky Mountain Communities, said that, because LIHTC is a federally monitored funding mechanism, property owners cannot afford to be loose with numbers. There's no grey area with income, but Latson thinks that Stucking's case provides a reason to rethink housing qualification.
“It was horrific to hear about a situation like that and to know that she was just over by a couple dollars,” Latson said. “There are no easy answers to it."
Beth Roalstad, executive director of Homeward Pikes Peak, a direct services organization, supports case management to residents at The Commons. She said the income threshold is difficult when income fluctuates and parents are doing all they can to provide for their children, which often includes working odd jobs or picking up extra shifts.
“When someone works hourly and there’s a lot of fluctuation, we’re looking at gross income. Then they do math to generalize annual income,” Roalstad said of the process. “If that’s under 30% area median income, the math could kick someone out of eligibility at the time of application — or it could help them get in.”
The math hurt Stucking.
“I just didn’t have any hope,” she said after first learning she wouldn’t qualify. “I was angry and very hurt, and I felt betrayed.”
Though Stucking was ultimately accepted, she wonders if her situation may have been different without her advocating for herself — and without media attention.
“This could happen to anyone,” Stucking said. “It just felt unfair that I had to go through this mental heartbreak and emotional damage just to prove that I deserve housing for my child and I.”
Hopes and dreams
Christine Schilowsky worried the day would never come.
An apartment to call her own. Custody of her daughter. Months of continued sobriety from methamphetamine. Each felt unobtainable as Schilowsky spent bitterly cold nights cramped in her car, trying to muster an hour of sleep through loud noises, with fear of legal troubles looming, with the heartbreak of life without her daughter.
Now, although Schilowsky is still in the process of re-aquiring custody of her daughter, she has been sober for months and recently found a permanent place to call "home."
The Commons is Colorado Springs’ first affordable housing project focused on homeless families. Twenty percent of units are reserved for military veterans, which Roalstad said is necessary in a city with five military bases.
“One of the things we wanted to do with construction was make sure this was dignified and beautiful, and that anyone would be proud to live here,” Roalstad said. “Housing that provides dignity helps people gain trust in themselves that they’re worth being invested in — so they invest in themselves.”
When people have a roof over their head and no longer need to worry about finding a new place to sleep each night, Roalstad said, they can begin thinking about secondary needs, like a job, education, and healthcare.
"The methodology is called 'housing first,'" Roalstad said. "We're trying to provide housing, and then engage [residents] in resources."
The Commons, a 50-unit apartment complex on the city’s east side, broke ground in August 2021. The first residents moved in at the end of April 2023. While Rocky Mountain Communities oversees property management of The Commons, Homeward Pikes Peak, a direct services organization, offers support for residents through job training, mental health treatment, case management, and more programming.
The complex hosts one, two and three-bedroom apartments, each with beds, a kitchen table, couch and living room table. Homeward Pikes Peak wants to ensure residents have little to worry about upon their arrival, Roalstad said..
“We wanted to make sure that our clients had everything they needed moving in and all they had to worry about was settling in, getting connected to resources and children getting settled into schools,” Roalstad said.
Residents living in The Commons are bound to a lease like that of any other property – no illegal activity, respecting neighbors and taking care of units. The property is gated and includes a fitness center, computer lab, and an outdoor courtyard and playground.
Residents at The Commons are often moving in after months or years of living on streets, sleeping in cars, or couch-surfing with family, friends and sometimes strangers, often putting themselves in dangerous situations in exchange for minimal amounts of sleep.
For Schilowsky, who recently lived in her car on Colorado Springs’ west side, moving into The Commons represents a new chapter of life.
“This is home,” Schilowsky said.
Christine Schilowski sits inside her new apartment at The Commons. Schilowski previously slept in her car and hopes stable housing will help her retain custody of her daughter.
Though walls and a roof take a massive burden off of Schilowsky’s shoulders, her home won’t feel complete until she has her daughter back, she said.
The Colorado Department of Human Services took Schilowsky’s daughter into their custody in August 2022. Schilowsky was living in her car with her daughter after her living situation fell through.
Crushed under the weight of meth addiction and unemployment, Schilowsky received a call from the Department of Human Services one evening asking to speak to her daughter, she recalled.
After the end of that conversation, DHS placed her daughter with a foster family.
It was the hardest moment of Schilowsky’s life. She said she never got to say goodbye.
“I didn’t really get a say. I didn’t get to talk to anybody — they just kind of decided,” Schilowsky said, fighting back tears. “Even the first month without her was too long.”
Though only eight months have passed since the two have been separated, it’s felt like an eternity for Schilowsky.
“It’s been forever,” she said.
She spent months ruminating in frustration over her daughter’s foster care placement, but Schilowsky ultimately sees the intervention as a net positive, since it encouraged her to get sober and seek housing, she said.
“Recently, I’ve changed my attitude about it, because I realize they were just trying to help the situation and make sure my daughter is safe,” Schilowsky said. “DHS, in a way, has helped because had they not done this, who knows where I’d be right now.”
Schilowsky took her first step towards housing by filling out an assessment called the Vulnerability Index - Service Prioritization Decision Assistance Tool, or VI-SPDAT.
The VI-SPDAT is a survey used by government-funded housing organizations in Colorado to assess the needs of those without stable housing. Survey results help prioritize who gets housing – and what kind of housing – based on need.
There are 800 households currently listed on the VI-SPDAT waiting list. Each one of them represents a unique journey of housing insecurity.
“The reality is there just aren’t enough housing solutions for everyone in the community who needs one right now," Roalstad said.
As population growth outpaces housing stock, a report from the Common Sense Institute, a non-partisan research organization studying Colorado’s economy, found Colorado Springs is lacking between 10,614 and 21,150 affordable housing units. The study also found the cost of real estate in Colorado’s second-largest city has increased over 100% in the last nine years. Household incomes, however, have not matched sky-rocketing prices, the report states.
Now that Schilowsky has a stable apartment for her and her daughter, she’s hoping the process of regaining custody moves more quickly. The two are currently in therapy together to support resolution of their traumas.
“Me and her, we need our time together,” Schilowsky said. “We haven’t had that in a while.”
Beyond essential time with her daughter, it’s hard for Schilowsky to imagine the possibilities that come with stable housing. But she looks forward to finding out.
“I’m just so grateful that she’s going to be here,” Schilowsky said. “But there’s a lot to work on.”
In its first weeks since opening, Roalstad said The Commons has provided much-needed benefits for a small fraction of those experiencing homelessness and poverty in Colorado Springs. But Roalstad and Latson know the problem is much greater than what these 50 units can solve.
There’s an open piece of land in the same gated plot where The Commons stands. The teams at Homeward Pikes Peak and Rocky Mountain Communities are hopeful that they can complete construction on a second permanent supportive housing complex there by 2025. They’re calling it: "The Commons, phase two."
Before shifting focus to a second complex, they are working to be fully moved in to The Commons (phase one) by June.
“I think we as leaders have to make the necessary adjustments because the lack of affordability is a huge issue,” Latson said. “We need to re-calibrate.”