City camping-ban 'loophole' increases chance of those on streets being sex offenders“It is unlawful for any person to camp on any public property, except as may be specifically authorized by the appropriate governmental authority.”
This is the mandate in city ordinance 9.6.110, which City Council passed four years ago when transient campsites began appearing all over town after a loophole surfaced in the city code, to the effect that there was no law specifically prohibiting such activities.
But 9.6.110 itself has a “big loophole,” to quote a term from former Colorado Springs Police Gold Hill Station Commander Pat Rigdon at a recent meeting.
The loophole is not in the law itself, but in the city's interpretation of it.
“When the ordinance was first written, it was not the intent to punish those who do not have a home, alternative housing or shelter,” explained Police Sgt. Michael Spitzmiller, in a follow-up interview. He is the head of the CSPD's Homeless Outreach (“HOT”) team that is authorized to make such case-by-case decisions.
According to Spitzmiller, these are primarily people who have criminal records and/or a history of violence, mental instability, medical conditions, problems at the local shelter or sex offenses.
During the August meeting of the Avenue Task Force - an informal citizen/government group seeking answers to panhandling, vagrancy and other problems along the West Colorado Avenue corridor - Rigdon noted that registered sex offenders (RSOs) are particularly hard to find housing for.
And when that happens, “they can camp in public indefinitely,” he said.
Counting all kinds of campers, the numbers have dropped considerably since 2010, when up to 500 tents sprouted on public lands in the area, putting public pressure on City Council to pass the ordinance. There were even concerns at the time about pollution in Fountain Creek.
The current number fluctuates constantly, depending on the weather and people coming and going from the area, but the total tends to be 100 or less, according to an interview with Brett Iverson of the HOT team, with most of them in the downtown or Westside areas.
As for RSOs, he estimated 15 to 20 campers a day (out of about 65 who don't have regular addresses). A similar number of RSOs are typically living out of their cars. “We kind of know where they're at,” Iverson said of those on the streets. So far, none of them has committed a crime related to their background, Iverson said.
One of the ways he and the other three HOT teamers keep up on all campers is by going out to known locations, which tend to be in out-of-the-way locations.. On Aug. 29 (the day of this interview), Iverson said he and his team had made such rounds starting at 3 in the morning.
The purpose of a wee-hours police visit is not to break up a camp then and there, but to make the law clear. In normal times of the day, campers are often not around, so they can claim ignorance. At 3 in the morning, campers tend to be in their camps. “We explain the law and the rules,” Iverson summarized. “We let them know we're here, and we'll get them help if they want it.”
It's necessary for police to be “so active,” he elaborated, because otherwise the illegal camps “would grow out of control.” He believes that this police visibility also reduces the number of RSO campers - despite their no-alternative immunity.
Commander Rigdon had headed Gold Hill from April 2012 until July of this year and had been a lieutenant there going back to 2009. Although he's now commander of the CSPD's Special Enforcement Division, he has continued to work with the Avenue Task Force because of research he'd been helping with before being reassigned.
Spitzmiller answered other camping questions asked by the Westside Pioneer.
One was how the city's policy came about to require a housing alternative before busting illegal campers - even though such language is not in the ordinance. Spitzmiller explained in an e-mail that it's “based on previous court rulings where cities were sued for mistreatment of homeless individuals… The courts ruled that police could not arrest homeless individuals for conducting life-sustaining activities, such as sleeping. When there are alternatives, such as shelter space, then the offender may be ticketed.”
Spitzmiller said the problem with legitimately housing RSOs is that there are only a “few places” that will take them. Despite efforts by the HOT team, such vacancies are “at the discretion of the provider and to my understanding from talking to the guys [the HOT team officers] it is quite inconsistent as to what those standards may be or who makes the final decision.”
The HOT team can move an RSO camp if it's near a school. If such a camp is found, for example, “the officers remind the RSO that they cannot be around children, which puts them in danger of more scrutiny from law enforcement,” Spitzmiller stated. “This also has a strong deterrent on them hanging around certain areas. Obviously if the RSO is in violation of any party of his provision or conditions of release, he is immediately held accountable.”
Westside Pioneer article