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A hole in the bucket 

Will trimmed budgets and department reorganization prevent police from cleaning up homeless camps?

click to enlarge Up to 40 homeless people every day find space for - shelter along Fountain Creek.
  • Up to 40 homeless people every day find space for shelter along Fountain Creek.

For years, Colorado Springs police and a local nonprofit have worked together to clean up homeless camps they say threaten public safety, quality of life and the environment.

"It's an important function, and I think we've been successful in the past," says Lt. Steve Tobias, speaking specifically of the monthly sweeps along Fountain Creek.

But Tobias says keeping sweeps going will be a challenge now. Police Chief Richard Myers' reorganization eliminates the neighborhood policing units that traditionally have overseen the sweeps. And new budgetary constraints could affect how much time officers can take for such things.

At the same time, Keep Colorado Springs Beautiful, the local affiliate of Keep America Beautiful, faces possible elimination of city funding. That $45,000 a year has provided a big chunk of its budget; only sponsors and donations provide other money. The nonprofit relies mostly on juvenile volunteers to clean the city's litter and homeless camps.

Keep Colorado Springs Beautiful executive director Deborah Cunningham says she'd like to continue the cleanups even without city funding. But the group must have police support to deal with belligerent, and sometimes violent, transients, and also to seize weapons and drugs.

Cunningham says there are environmental problems with some of the homeless living in camps, as well.

"They defecate in the creeks, urinate in the creeks," she says. "There are hypodermic needles. There are weapons, drugs, drug paraphernalia."

According to a survey by the Colorado Division of Housing, there were 1,136 homeless people living in El Paso County in August 2006. Police Sgt. Ronald Sheppard, who has run sweeps in the past, says there are usually about 20 to 40 homeless people camping along Fountain Creek each day.

Those people are on Steve Handen's mind. A local who's been in the shelter business for decades, Handen worries about the dangers that homeless camps pose to bikers, runners and walkers along Fountain Creek. He adds that homeless people themselves are at risk; it was in camps that transients suffered a series of beatings in the Springs earlier this year.

But, Handen argues, the homeless need somewhere to go, and camps provide a home, as well as a degree of freedom not available at local shelters. Many can't or don't abide by the rules required to use the services those shelters offer.

"Homelessness is not one problem," Handen says, noting that people are homeless due to everything from unemployment, to substance abuse, to physical or mental ailments. He thinks the solution may be asking the homeless what kind of services they want, rather than imposing someone else's will on them.

Also, Handen is not convinced groups like Keep Colorado Springs Beautiful are concerned as much with the homeless as they are with the appearance of the city.

But according to Cunningham, Keep Colorado Springs Beautiful offers help to every transient they come upon in the sweeps. She recalls one cold day when her group discovered two inebriated men sleeping outside. Without the group's help, she asserts, they would have frozen to death.

Cunningham plans to appeal to City Council to retain funding for her group and continue its programs. She points out that the city would have to spend more money to replace the nonprofit's services. Worse, she says, the city might neglect the problem, causing unsafe conditions.

"I know the police department values what we do immensely," she says.

stanley@csindy.com

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