Much remains missing from homeless strategy

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It’s nearly 200 pages long and chock-full of well-intentioned ideas on how to tackle one of our most intractable problems.

Adopted in early 2009, the “10-Year Blueprint to Serve Every Homeless Citizen in the Pike’s Peak Region” reflects the sort of thinking that leaves you believing something good is right around the corner.

The economic downturn, unfortunately, made it clear how far we still must go.

As far as issues go, homelessness just never goes away. And, of course, it worsens every time the economy goes into a tailspin, no matter how many smart ideas you cram into your white paper.

It’s one of the more unpleasant symptoms of a down economy, though often the ugliest thing about homelessness are the remarks you’ll hear people make about those who are down and out.

Just listen to the comments from reader of a recent news accounts about a proposal before the Colorado Springs City Council to spend $50,000 to help house the homeless in a motel.

“Absolutely ridiculous!” the writer said. “How about putting those lazy squatters to work to make the $50,000?! The city does not need to be involved in this mess at all!!!”

Nice, huh?

The Great Recession — during which America for the first time in decades saw homeless encampments pop up in places like Las Vegas, Seattle and, of course, right here — clearly did not soften everyone’s heart.

Comments like that become even more offensive when you consider that our homeless population includes the severely mentally ill, veterans and children. According to the National Center on Family Homelessness, one in 50 of America’s children will experience homelessness at some point.

The $50,000 from the city, along with another $50,000 from the El Paso county commission, would help cover some of the cost of housing dozens of homeless at the Express Inn through the summer. An earlier, $100,000 gift from the El Pomar Foundation has paid for rooms at the hotel over the past couple of months, but that money is expected to run out by the end of May. The dollars were given to the city in February, after the council passed an ordinance banning camping by the homeless along creeks and other public property.

Smartly, the gift came with strings attached, so no one gets a room at the Express Inn unless they seek work. Thanks to El Pomar’s dollars, the efforts of homeless advocates and a few compassionate employers, more than 70 homeless have found jobs.

The costs of homelessness — including vandalism, foster care for children, revolving-door detox for chronic alcoholics, emergency welfare assistance for families, and juvenile detention for runaways — are much higher than the $100,000 under consideration at the moment.

But simply throwing money at the problem and hoping it goes away won’t work.

Here’s how the council can OK the sought-after expenditure and, by taking the following steps, avoid appearing irresponsible about how it spends public dollars.

Require developers to build low-income housing units as part of their larger subdivisions. This isn’t always an approach favored by developers, but it is gaining traction around the country, especially where municipalities offer expedited permitting and density waivers for developers who agree to play along.

Extend job-training and tax credits to any employer who hires a homeless person. Employers need tangible incentives to take on the extra risk of hiring someone who may not have held a steady job in years.

Require that any homeless person who is housed by the city put in 20 hours of work a week helping keep our parks and streets clean. The city’s now planning to require eight hours a week of labor, but that’s strikes me as underwhelming.

Much of what’s detailed in last year’s 10-year blueprint involves the laudable work of private, nonprofit groups.

But it’s unfair to expect them to manage the problem alone. We’d like to hear your ideas. Send them to my email address, and we might publish yours in the next issue of the Business Journal.

Allen Greenberg is the editor of the Colorado Springs Business Journal. Reach him at allen.greenberg@csbj.com or 719-329-5206.