City suspends sweeps of homeless camps following legal threat
Allegations that transient veterans’ rights were violated
Monthly cleanups of the city's homeless camps have been suspended because of the threat of a legal challenge.
Mayor Lionel Rivera announced this decision at an informal meeting with various interested individuals and groups Oct. 23. Although not stating the city had acted wrongly, he said the halt would allow time for city lawyers to review if the sweeps are violating anyone's constitutional rights, as alleged. He also expressed a willingness for additional talks with critics of the city's homeless policy.
Asked how long the suspension might last, Rivera said, “I don't have an answer for you,” adding that the city would make an announcement “as soon as we can.”
The impact for the Westside will be that several dozen transients who typically camp illegally in such places as Fountain Creek, Monument Creek and Douglas Creek Open Space can do so freely, nor will their camp trash be cleaned up, at least for the time being.
In previous interviews, police have warned that if camps are left alone, they tend to spread. Nancy Miceli, a Westsider at the meeting, said she already is concerned. “To me, it's a safety issue,” she told Rivera, adding that she sees transients in her older-Westside neighborhood on a regular basis now. “I feel threatened.”
The possibility of legal action has been announced by the Colorado Veterans Alliance, a one-year-old Denver-based organization that seeks to protect the rights of U.S. military veterans. On its website, the group contends that Colorado Springs has “targeted” homeless veterans and that “medals, VA paperwork, family photos and IDs were taken and other property has been destroyed or disposed of.”
These allegations have been denied by both Keep Colorado Springs Beautiful (KCSB) and Colorado Springs Police, which handle the sweeps (KCSB through a contract with the city). “We welcome a court test,” said KCSB director Dee Cunningham. “We would never knowingly violate people's rights.”
From the city's standpoint, the camps constitute trespassing. Camp denizens are alerted before sweeps so they will have a chance to pick up any stuff they care about and clear out before police and KCSB come through with trash bags, city authorities have previously explained.
The main reason for the sweeps is “picking up a public health hazard,” said Police Chief Richard Myers during the Oct. 23 meeting. Individual rights are important, he agreed, but “if the city stops providing that service, then what is our city going to be like?”
At the meeting, Alliance founder Rick Duncan charged that the city has violated the U.S. Constitution's 4th Amendment (unreasonable search and seizure) and 14th Amendment (lack of due process). He added that he was referring to “specific acts” that had occurred “at specific dates and specific times.”
Afterward, the Pioneer e-mailed Duncan, asking why he believes police and KCSB have targeted homeless veterans and if he would provide details about the “specific acts.” He had not replied by press time.
One issue at the meeting concerned the conduct of the sweep this month. A video that was taken of it shows a police officer opening a suitcase, looking inside, then closing it. Duncan and others have charged this was invasive, whereas Myers said the suitcase appeared to be abandoned. The officer had no idea what was in the suitcase, so Myers said he was looking through it to see who it might belong to and if it held anything dangerous and eventually he wound up leaving it behind.
Duncan said at the meeting he did not understand how the city defined “abandonment.” He agrees that cleanliness is important, and he would favor a way to have homeless-camp trash picked up without authorities going through people's private things. “Please do; I'll pay more taxes,” he said.
Another voice defending homeless vets at the meeting was Pikes Peak Pax Christi, a Christian affiliate of the Pikes Peak Justice and Peace Commission, a long-time local group that promotes non-violence solutions instead of war. Patrick Ayers of Pax Christi threatened to take the legality of the homeless sweeps to court, “with our funds, if need be, and to take political action, if need be.”
Bob Holmes, director of Homeward Pikes Peak, the city-recognized umbrella agency on homeless issues, said that about two-thirds of the transients who are living outside are mentally ill, and there are “a lot of substance abusers as well.” His programs seek to get people off the streets and into treatment. This approach is also supported by City Councilman Jerry Heimlicher, whose recently started “meter aid” program asks people to donate money to customized “parking meters” instead of to the homeless themselves - with the meter money going to Homeward Pikes Peak.
Cunningham said the city has contracted with KCSB to do the sweeps since 1998. In about 120 cleanups over that time, she said the group has picked up 5,211 cubic yards of trash, 1,142 hypodermic needles, plus numerous bottles and other waste, “all near creeks and trails used by the people of Colorado Springs.”
The homeless-sweeps issue has been especially publicized by the Colorado Springs daily, the Gazette, which has opined in three editorials over the past two weeks that the homeless have a right to camp where they want. “Without the freedom to live as they choose, the homeless aren't free,” states an Oct. 29 editorial.
Westside Pioneer article