Homeless update: Sweeps accuser holds off on suit for now; says city being cooperative, wasn’t ‘targeting’

       Rick Duncan, leader of an effort to protect homeless military veterans' rights, said this week he is still holding off on a threatened lawsuit because of what he perceives as good cooperation from the city. At a camp where one homeless person shot another in the
summer of 2007 next to Fountain Creek behind the
Westside’s Sonic restaurant, some typical camp  debris can be seen – an empty liquor bottle, campfire ring, trash and discarded clothes.
Westside Pioneer file photo
       “So far, the city and KCSB [Keep Colorado Springs Beautiful] have been willing to work with us,” he related in a phone interview. “We're hoping to balance the rights and interests of all involved.”
       His nonprofit group, the Colorado Veterans Alliance, has previously filed what's known as a “waiver of sovereign immunity” in a Denver federal court. This essentially makes it possible for the group to readily file a lawsuit should talks break down, he explained.
       City lawyers are continuing to study the legal aspects of the city's current policy of “homeless sweeps,” in which police and KCSB volunteers seek to clean up dangerous or unsanitary conditions in transient camps that exist in public places - including creeks and open spaces on the Westside. Until those aspects are resolved, Mayor Lionel Rivera announced Oct. 23 that no sweeps will occur.
       Duncan had previously alleged that police were “targeting” homeless veterans and taking away their personal items in the sweeps. This charge had also appeared on the Alliance's website homepage, but he said this week that he no longer believes malice was involved. As a result, the website wording has been tempered to the following: “Homeless vets have been caught up in sweeps conducted by Keep Colorado Springs Beautiful and the Colorado Springs PD. Medals, VA paperwork, family photos and IDs were taken and other property has been destroyed or disposed of.”
       Regarding those losses, Duncan said their disappearances in sweeps have been supported by “15 sworn affadavits from various individuals,” he said on the phone.
       Police and KCSB have denied that anyone has been knowingly deprived of valuables, although police have conceded that sometimes on sweeps when items of possible value and uncertain ownership have been found, they have been taken to the police station for safekeeping. The response from local homeless advocates is that transient campers often don't want to go to the PD to look for missing items because of basic distrust or because of warrants against them. Also, Duncan pointed out, it's his experience that it's not always easy to find items that have wound up in police impound.
       In related information, there isn't agreement on how many homeless veterans are typically camping in local public places. Duncan estimated 200 out of about 800 transient campers total, but a smaller figure is suggested by Bob Holmes, director of Homeward Pikes Peak, a city-recognized umbrella agency for homeless issues. Based on his experience, he put the overall number of what he terms “chronically homeless” at about 200, with 16 to 20 percent of those (64 to 80 people) being veterans. This would be close to the national average. He has also estimated that close to two-thirds of the chronically homeless have some kind of mental or substance-abuse problem.
       As noted by Councilman Jerry Heimlicher at the Oct. 27 council meeting, Holmes has been working on a draft of potential sweep guidelines for city consideration once the legal issues have been surmounted. His recommendations include continuing to give campers advance notice (one to two days), picking up their trash but leaving possessions and encampments undisturbed (“They're going to leave for six hours and come back anyway”) and ticketing anyone still in a camp when police come. “I'm trying to look at both sides,” he said in a phone interview this week.
       In a phone interview, Matt Parkhouse, a longtime volunteer who helped start the Red Cross shelter in 1984 added that a program that has worked is one in which homes are provided to transient campers - without insisting they break their addictions first. Surprisingly, he noted, they tend to do better in such situations and in time can start becoming productive people. However, the federal program (Housing First) no longer has the necessary funding, he said.

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