Alan Sjoken painstakingly nabs trash out of Fountain Creek with a stick, then drops it into a black trash bag.
When full, that bag will join the huge line stacked along the creek bed, ready to be heaved up a hill and into a pickup. It's not easy work, but Sjoken says these clean-ups with Keep Colorado Springs Beautiful bring a certain satisfaction. That's why he volunteers for the local nonprofit, which performs about eight to 10 clean-ups a month on public land. The organization targets a lot of illegal homeless camps, which often become sprawling middens.
Occupants are given 72 hours' written warning from the city police's Homeless Outreach Team to move their belongings before the sweep. The HOT Team also comes along to counsel any remaining occupants, collect important papers to be returned to their owners, deal with any illicit substances or weapons found in the camps and, occasionally, remove a corpse.
On this day in March, a few campers have failed to leave, and are given a chance to gather their things along with a recommendation from the HOT Team on where to turn for help. Sjoken, who says he lives at the Salvation Army's R.J. Montgomery New Hope Center, says a part of him is sad to see the people go, keenly understanding the challenges they'll face. But at the same time, he says cleaning the camps often gives him a different perspective on homelessness.
"I found a sign that says, 'Homeless: Anything helps,' but then right by it, I found several drug bags," he says, adding, "It's kind of frustrating because I've given a lot [to the homeless], even sometimes my last couple dollars."
There are plenty of signs of drug use in these camps, from baggies to pill bottles to pipes to a cardboard sign that reads "Friday Nite anything helps 4:20 4:20." There is also an astonishing amount of trash: bottles, soiled clothes, camping gear, foam mattresses, a broken hot-tub and donated food scattered on the ground. Some of it is buried, or dumped in the water.
The whole camp, which is near the Depot Arts District, is visible from the Pikes Peak Greenway Trail across the creek, and the occasional person out for a stroll casts a curious eye toward the scene.
KCSB receives $45,000 from the city annually to do these clean-ups on public lands and to manage the municipal court defendants who do much of the work. The organization collects more than 7,000 cubic yards of trash in an average year.
Executive director Dee Cunningham says she's planning to introduce two programs this year that she hopes will cut down on trash in the city. One is a campaign to encourage residents to bag their garbage before putting it into their bins, so it doesn't fly away in the wind. The other is a hotline for the public to report commercial trucks that have trash flying out of their beds. KCSB will report the problems to the companies and keep an annual list that will highlight the worst offending companies and the most improved. The list will be given to the media and police.
"We need to show them that people do care, they are watching, and they're not going to get away with it," Cunningham says.
KCSB is also prepping for The Great American Cleanup, which will take place May 3. She is encouraging the public to volunteer for the national event, which this year will target the Tejon Street wetlands near Dorchester Park. The trashed area is home to a rich variety of wildlife.
It's just one of several major clean-ups on the way. El Paso County is planning an April 26 "Tackle the Trash" day, in which volunteers will target six public areas. Last year, more than 400 people showed up to volunteer at the event.
City Councilor Helen Collins is also trying to plan a spring clean-up day on the city's southeast side. She sees clean-ups as a way to encourage community pride and boost the city's tourism.
"Mayor [Steve] Bach and those guys, they have a lot of priorities that they need to do, and I think sometimes the money they spend is to [advance] different priorities," she says. "But if they want people to come here — you know people love clean cities, that's for sure."
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