Key questions left unanswered at homeless meeting
No change in status of camps, although some sites will eventually require ‘biohazard’ gear for cleanup
Transients live in public and private places illegally, including parts of the Westside. Many are mentally unstable and leave trash around their camps. Police give them
trespassing citations from time to time, but these are ignored. As a result, and without the political will or funding to take drastic enforcement action, the city is looking
for ways to accommodate a population that may be increasing because of the down economy.
This was the message that came out of an informal meeting Jan. 27 at the Gold Hill Police substation's community room. Coordinated by Gold Hill Commander Kurt Pillard, the meeting ended with no change in the current situation in which the city has not cleaned up the camps since October because of a threatened lawsuit based on the way the cleanups were being conducted.
The meeting included the revelation from Pillard that some homeless camping sites - including the one along Fountain Creek next to Highway 24 just west of I-25 - have gotten so bad that the cleanups, whenever they do occur, will require those doing it to wear “biohazard” gear for self protection.
Most of the 75 or so in attendance were people involved with or supportive of the homeless community. A few identified themselves as actual campers - all saying their sites are clean and that they have been abused in different ways. One said his tent had been slashed with a knife and he'd gotten a ticket for trash that wasn't his. Another said her cell phone had been taken, another that the toilets were recently locked at America the Beautiful Park and another that he had to get a job. Their chief spokesperson was Patrick Ayers of Pax Christi (a local chapter of a national peace group), who repeated allegations that during previous city cleanup “sweeps” police were generally insensitive to camping people, and cleanup crews were disrespectful of their possessions.
However, in exchanges between Ayers and Pillard, it was revealed that no actual reports reflecting such allegations have been filed.
At different times during the meeting, members of the homeless contingent made comments indicating a perception that they are disliked by ordinary residents. They need to see that everyone is “just a paycheck away” from homelessness, one camper said. Dan Raider, Deputy Chief of Support Services for the Colorado Springs Fire Department, suggested that everyday people are “afraid” of the transients, commenting that they have an “image” problem.
Near the end of the meeting, a Westside resident, Debra Hoke, spoke up about the impact that illegal camping has on the use of the city's public lands. “I want my trail back,” she said. “I'm not afraid. I don't despise you. I just want to be able to use my trail again.”
No offers came forward to help her in this regard.
When Pillard was asked about city liability for allowing the camps in locations (as he had defined them earlier in the meeting) that are illegal, he described the issue as “part of a much larger problem.” Afterward, he elaborated that it's typical for police to ticket a transient for trespassing, and “two hours later, he's camping 50 yards down the trail.” Police have been told the Criminal Justice Center doesn't want such cases, so all police can do is issue more tickets that get ignored. Eventually a camp with several such people appears, with trash building up.
This led to a rhetorical question afterward from Lindsey Aparacio, a Westside resident who attended the meeting, “Why do I have to abide by the rules and the homeless don't?”
Contrary to some opinions, it appears that the homeless campers are there mostly by choice. According to conversations with Pillard and Bob Holmes of Homeward Pikes Peak, a city-recognized umbrella agency for homeless issues, the majority of campers typically have drinking problems, which bars them from the Salvation Army homeless shelter at 709 S. Sierra Madre St. or from being helped by programs that exist for people who have hit on hard times; or, they just like being outdoors. Holmes said he is separately working on a “sobering beds” plan that would give the drunks a place to sleep it off indoors and thus reduce the numbers by the creeks and other outdoors places.
At the beginning of the meeting, Pillard unveiled the cleanup plan that is being developed, in which the homeless would get 72 hours notice (longer than before) prior to any cleanup “sweep” and any personal items picked up in the process could be recovered later at the police custodian's office. The sweep personnel would be as before - police accompanying the city-contracted non-profit agency, Keep Colorado Springs Beautiful (KCSB). The intent is to have a plan that Pillard might present to City Council Feb. 24.
Ayers was not satisfied, however. He did not like the idea of police accompanying the sweeps, nor did he want transients to be required to move from their sites (as has been the case in the past) while the sweeps are taking place. “Some of them have things that are hard to carry off,” he said.
He also wanted a better method to ensure that campers' prescription medications are not misplaced. Pillard said it would be helpful if the “meds” were clearly labeled.
On a projector screen, Pillard displayed pictures of current trashy homeless camps and told the group, “I hope you will agree this needs to be cleaned up.”
One transient, who identified himself as Thomas “Hobo” Nash, announced that he has already started cleaning up where he lives near I-25. He asked to be given plastic bags and to have a trash truck come by to pick up anything he gets. Someone in the audience offered to give him bags, and there was further discussion about getting a local trash company to provide free pickup.
Dee Cunningham of KCSB pointed out that plastic bags have been provided to transient campers in the past, but when cleanup crews have come through, “we find very few filled and many empty.”
Pillard said that the reason crews will have to use biohazard gear to clean up the site along Fountain Creek next to Highway 24 west of I-25 is the accumulation of human waste and the discovery this month that a “road-kill deer” had been dragged off the highway and over to the camp for food, after which the carcass was left in Fountain Creek. The overall hazard is “urgent,” but not an “emergency,” Pillard said.
The lawsuits were threatened in October by Ayers and by a veterans' rights group (charging that homeless veterans' rights (Colorado Veterans Alliance) were being violated during sweeps). Claiming to be also speaking for the veterans' group Jan. 27, Ayers said he has “no problem” with cleaning up the camps, but wanted to ensure the perceived past issues were resolved. During one exchange with Pillard, he said that between his group and Colorado Veterans Alliance, 150 statements have been gathered from homeless campers proving city violations have occurred.
“We need to see that,” Pillard responded.
“It's in the hands of our lawyers,” Ayers said.
“You need to talk to us so we can investigate it,” Pillard said. He added that officers would be made available after the meeting for anyone wanting to file a report on the alleged abuse. (No one did, he said later.)
“We're afraid of your officers,” Ayers told him. “And if you continue to violate the law, we will have to reinstate the lawsuit.”
Whether or not the city-funded sweeps will continue at all is an uncertainty, Pillard cautioned. Because of the city's deficit (about $8 million, going into a budget- balancing meeting Feb. 9), “the KCSB contract is in jeopardy,” he said.
None of the homeless advocates at the meeting offered to help the city with the cleanup costs.
More meetings to seek input on cleanup solutions will be held, Pillard said afterward, but no dates have been scheduled as yet.
Westside Pioneer article