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A three-part look at why the pandemic has pushed so many Coloradans to the brink of homelessness, and how communities are responding.

'A Roof Over Your Head': Residents Put Down Roots In Fort Collins' Newest Supportive Housing Project

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Leigh Paterson
/
KUNC
Alison Perkins, 51, sits on the new couch in her apartment at Mason Place. Perkins lived on the streets for two years before moving into the building in March.

Housing insecurity and homelessness were growing issues even before the pandemic, due to Colorado’s population and high cost of living. A supportive housing project in Fort Collins is changing what it looks like to get people housed.

Alison Perkins, 51, had gotten used to sleeping outside in freezing cold temperatures after she lost her home due to financial and personal problems two years ago.

Each day was a struggle to survive, she said. Finding shelter was her first priority, especially during the winter. Then, a warm meal. Looking for a job or getting mental health care while mourning the death of her son, whom she lost in 2019, were much lower on her to-do list.

“I was just existing, really,” said Perkins, who has lived in Fort Collins for most of her life. “I would follow all the other homeless people to make sure I had a place to stay at night and food and whatnot.”

Then, one day earlier this year, Perkins was visiting a local shelter when a caseworker pulled her aside. A room was available in a new supportive housing project in town, the worker told her. Would she be interested?

“Absolutely,” Perkins said.

In less than a month, she moved into Mason Place, a new 60-unit housing project in Fort Collins. The building, formerly home to a dinner theater, was purchased in 2018 and renovated by Housing Catalyst, a local developer that builds affordable housing projects in Northern Colorado. The first residents started arriving in January.

Its interior now looks like a trendy hotel. The lobby, with its high, vaulted ceiling, is full of mid-century modern furniture and lots of plants. There’s an on-site library, a community garden and even a dog washing station.

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The community kitchen inside of Mason Place.

The project functions much like any other apartment complex, but is only open to people experiencing homelessness who also have a disability, such as a mental health disorder or other chronic health condition. Each occupant must pass a criminal background check. They must also sign a lease and pay 30% of their total monthly income toward rent.

Unlike a temporary homeless shelter, Mason Place is permanent housing. Residents can stay as long as they live up to the program’s requirements. Case managers and other support staff are on-site 24/7 to help them with everything from maintaining personal hygiene to writing a resume and applying for jobs.

So far 33 people have moved into the building, said Daniel Covey, the program director. He expects it to reach full capacity by the end of June.

“The need certainly exceeds the supply,” Covey said. “There’s no question about that.”

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Courtesy Housing Catalyst
The lobby of Mason Place in Fort Collins.

Mason Place is one of a growing number of permanent supportive housing projects that have opened in Fort Collins and across the region in recent years. Demand for these types of long-term services is high because more people are experiencing homelessness across the state.

Data from the state’s most recent homeless counts conducted in January 2020 showed almost 10,000 people in Colorado were considered unhoused -- a 2.4% increase from the year before. The release of data for early 2021 has been delayed due to the pandemic, but more growth is expected.

Housing Catalyst opened its first Fort Collins-based permanent supportive housing project, Redtail Ponds, in 2015. Since then, 126 residents have lived on the property, according to a report the organization released last year.

Out of those residents, at least 21% found steady employment, the report found. At least 88% remained stably housed as of last year. Other local permanent supportive housing projects have seen similar results.

“We’re really trying to create a sense of community in our properties,” Covey said. “With the affordable housing, the supportive services and the surrounding healthy community, we see a lot of people be able to move through very difficult challenges that they face.”

Following the success of Redtail Ponds, Housing Catalyst began searching for a site to build a second permanent supportive housing project. In 2018, the organization received a low-income housing tax credit from the state, as well as contributions from the City of Fort Collins and other sources, to fund the project.

Around the same time, a local arts organization, the Midtown Arts Center, announced it was shutting the doors of its iconic dinner theater and putting it up for sale.

The three-story building, located near a busy commercial shopping district and a public transit route, proved an ideal spot for the concept. Housing Catalyst’s development proposal for the site initially drew some resistance from neighbors and surrounding businesses. But Covey said they responded to concerns by inviting residents to learn about the program at a series of public meetings.

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Leigh Paterson / KUNC
Daniel Covey, permanent supportive housing program manager, stands in the lobby of Mason Place. The apartment building started welcoming its first residents in January and hopes to reach capacity by June.

The organization points to multiple studies that show the positive impacts of permanent supportive housing developments. Research has shown that once people are stably housed, they’re less likely to need emergency medical or mental health care. Others show supportive housing projects have no statistically significant impacts on nearby property values.

Alison George, director of Colorado’s Department of Local Affairs, which funds affordable housing projects across the state, said other than securing funding, local resistance to projects can be one of the main challenges to getting them up and running. (DOLA partially funded Mason Place).

“I think that it comes from a place of not really understanding or knowing the impact not only on the individuals that are housed, but also on the positive impact of the community that it’s actually placed,” George said.

Once residents get approved to live in Mason Place, they’re given a set of keys and a tour of their new residence. The level of support each person receives from staff depends on their specific needs. Some may meet daily with case managers. Others may go several days between check-ins.

In early March, Alison Perkins stood outside her apartment door for the first time as a building staff member gave her a lesson on how to use her new key fob. She felt nervous as the metal handle beeped and the door swung open.

“Oh wow, that’s cool,” she said, stepping into the narrow entryway, her green eyes lighting up as she looked around.

The apartment was fully furnished with a green accent wall. The kitchen cabinets were stocked with peanut butter and pasta sauce.

“It even smells new,” she said.

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Leigh Paterson / KUNC
Alison Perkins gets acquainted with her new kitchen.

As she took it all in, she started processing what it meant to have a place to call her own again.

“Just knowing that you have a roof over your head changes your whole attitude about everything,” she said. “Like, what’s the next step? What can I do next?”

She said she wants to work with staff on a new resume and begin a job hunt. She styled hair for three decades, she said, and might want to get back into that field.

Then there’s getting a grief counselor to properly mourn the death of her 29-year-old son, whom she lost to a motorcycle accident in 2019. That has also moved up her to-do list now that she doesn’t have to worry about housing.

“I’m ready to get back on track and go see the proper people to see where I need help the most,” Perkins said. “I’m just another 51-year-old lady that’s trying to get back on my feet.”

She’d begin her first steps tomorrow, she said. First, that night, she would look for a DVD player and find a movie to watch in her new home.

Struggling to pay rent in Northern Colorado? Here’s a list of resources.

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