The first arctic cloud of the season descended on Colorado Springs on the first day of winter in December and proved to be a solid testing ground for whether the city would have enough beds at Springs Rescue Mission, now the only emergency shelter for homeless single adults.
The answer: yes, it does.
Capacity at Springs Rescue Mission, a nonprofit supported by local churches and other donors, also was put to the test in the past few days, as temperatures dipped below zero and stayed bitter throughout the day.
Friday night brought 442 homeless people seeking shelter, and on Sunday night 415 people slept at the campus at 5 W. Las Vegas St., said Travis Williams, chief development officer.
Springs Rescue Mission has a capacity of 450, but in times of frigid weather has expanded up to 475 people, making room for overnighters in alternative spaces such as the dining hall.
“We will do everything we can to make sure everybody who needs shelter can find shelter,” Williams said.
Neither Springs Rescue Mission, nor the Salvation Army, nor The Place, the city’s shelter for homeless teens and young adults, were full over the weekend, officials said.
But even if there’s more demand than the supply of beds, homeless people have other choices besides trying to rough it outside.
Help COS, a small nonprofit group in Colorado Springs, is transporting homeless people from the Sanctuary Church on the city’s west side, from outside Springs Rescue Mission and from campsites along creeks and under bridges to sleep at the north campus of Radiant Church, off Powers Blvd and Research Parkway.
The emergency transportation and shelter program was activated Sunday night and also will be available Monday night and other evenings as the weather dictates, said Melissa Oskin, one of the organization’s founders.
“It’s too cold for people to be outside,” she said. “There’s a fact of the homeless community that are prepared — they know when it’s coming and have the right gear — but most of the ones who camp on the trails are not, and it catches them off-guard.”
Some people who are taking advantage of the warming-shelter offer have been permanently banned from Springs Rescue Mission for behavior issues, Oskin said, although Springs Rescue Mission says people who have been red-flagged for behavior problems are waived and let in during extreme cold weather.
“Panic” was the primary condition of the 60 homeless people Help COS transported Sunday night to Radiant Church, where they could warm up and get some rest and food, courtesy of the church and assistance groups.
“There’s relief to have a safe place to go,” Oskin said.
She and her husband expected to pick up about 100 people Monday night and drive them to the church. People who stayed overnight Sunday also could remain at the church during the day on Monday, Oskin said.
Still, some people weathered the storm. Ryan Ohlberg, who’s been living on the streets for five years, said he found a laundry room to hunker down on Sunday night. He ate lunch Monday at the Marian House soup kitchen, with a sleeping bag wrapped around him.
He said he’s tried the city’s main shelter but prefers to be a loner.
“There’s not a lot of places to go,” he said. “A lot of places you can get kicked out of easily.”
Colorado Springs lost some 140 emergency beds when two shelters for families closed last year and the Salvation Army announced plans to convert its RJ Montgomery shelter from accepting single men, women and families to a families’-only model.
As a result, Springs Rescue Mission saw an initial increase of about 80 homeless men and women seeking shelter and other services, Williams said.
Springs Rescue Mission also keeps its day center open, which can hold up to 250 people, “to make sure folks don’t have to stay outside in the elements any longer than they need to,” Williams said. “So, throughout the day or night, they can be indoors, warm, safe and dry.”
The Salvation Army operates under the same philosophy of taking in as many people as possible, said Officer Capt. Doug Hanson, who leads El Paso County’s Salvation Army church and outreach programs.
“We always stay poised on extremely cold nights and are geared up for the larger numbers to come,” he said.
“The staff has the mentality that they will not turn away a family, they’ll make it happen — lives depend on it.”
Families are allowed to stay inside at RJ Montgomery on frigid days, Hanson said, and hot lunch is served, which is not usually provided for clients.
Interior remodeling of its RJ Montgomery Center to create individual family units is behind schedule, Hanson said. Up to 15 families can sleep at the shelter currently.
A total of 17 units will be completed in two to three weeks, he said, with another 12 to be built and open in late March. A separate cottage on the property accommodates 12 spaces for military veterans.
The city of Colorado Springs intends to provide training sessions for churches or other groups that want to do warming-shelter setups in the future, said Crystal Karr, the city’s homelessness prevention and response coordinator.