Last January, I spent a day surveying individuals who were living in homeless camps in Colorado Springs. I was there as a part of the “Point In Time” count, a yearly attempt to quantify the number of individuals experiencing homelessness. The count is required of any community receiving federal funding to address the issue. I participated along with four other volunteers and we visited camps in various parts of the city, spending about 10 minutes with each individual as we asked the questions on our survey.
While venturing into all of the camps was unnerving, it was our time in the largest camp, located on Monument Valley Creek on the southern boundary of downtown, which convinced me of the need for a better option. Stretching for close to a mile on both sides of the bike path, the camp contained a variety of individuals. On one end, we encountered a group who had been working to keep their section clean and orderly. They performed routine trash pick-ups in their area, which was around 2,000 square feet.
Further down the trail, we passed into another group of tents that was strewn with garbage. Upon entering the area, people disappeared into their tents and told us to “go away.” I watched a couple of relatively well dressed young men eye our group’s approach and then quickly disappear further down the trail. Our group’s leader, whose work routinely took him into the camps, guessed they were selling drugs; preying on the vulnerabilities of people living in constant crisis.
That January day was sunny with temperatures in the 50s. Given the weather and the unusually mild winter, it was not surprising that the people we spoke with had decided not to leave their camps for one of the local shelters which were just a 5 to 10 minute walk away. What did surprise me was that the majority of the people said they would not go to the shelter even when the weather got colder. One gentleman explained that going into shelter meant following rules, the risk of having belongings stolen and the unpleasant reality of sleeping in close quarters with people who might be sick, high or drunk. We heard variations of this explanation from almost everyone we asked: people did not enjoy camping, but it was better than being in a shelter.
Spending the night in tents is prohibited in the city; however, it has been allowed in recent years because the community had fewer shelter beds than homeless individuals. The inequity makes enforcement of a camping ban both ethically and legally impractical. This will change with the recently announced 420 additional low-barrier shelter beds opening at the Springs Rescue Mission and Salvation Army in November. These beds will ensure that everyone in our community (based on the January Point In Time Count) has a place to go at night. It will also make camping an enforceable crime.
Having more shelter beds, especially in the winter months, is the right thing for our community. So is the improved enforcement around camping. The camps are dangerous and unhealthy for the men, women and children who live in them.
But this addition of shelter beds is no victory in the battle against homelessness; it is a concession. Shelter removes the unsightly tents and camps from public view, but it does nothing to address the issues that force people to live outside in the first place. Lack of affordable housing, access to health care (especially for mental health) and the breakdown of family are the systemic challenges our homeless are facing. The failure to address those problems will ultimately result in a need to continuously add more shelter beds as those experiencing homelessness continues to grow.
Services like shelters and soup kitchens fill an immediate need, but when provided without any additional support for the people who use them, they ultimately undermine the success of the people who are trying to escape the grip of poverty and homelessness. Instead of focusing our time and resources on building more, we would be better served by attending to the root causes. Increasing the inventory of affordable housing would be a start, but that goal is plagued by high costs and neighborhoods that fight against potential projects — both challenges that could be overcome by our collective will. Programs and agencies that support the development and strengthening of families, from education to housing, are also far better long-term investments as they address the needs of two generations simultaneously. Finally, helping to remove the barriers to employment and health care is essential if we want to move the needle on homelessness.
In Luke 10:29, Jesus tells of the Samaritan traveler who found a man beaten on the side of the road and stops to care for his wounds. The Good Samaritan then took the man to an innkeeper. “The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper with the instruction, ‘Take care of him. If you have spent more than what I have given you, I shall repay you on my way back.’” (Lk 10:35)
Charity calls on us to be both the Samaritan and the innkeeper; to care for the people in crisis and to help them achieve stability. If we as a community fail to address both of these roles, focusing only on solutions that hide our poor and vulnerable from sight, we will never make a lasting difference. The Samaritans have provided the shelter: it is time to support the innkeepers.