Keep Colorado Springs Beautiful has been cleaning up homeless camps for years. But recently, negative media attention and the threat of a lawsuit from the Colorado Veterans Alliance have put the sweeps on hold and the entire practice in question.
Community leaders are considering both legal and ethical questions. When private property's unattended on public grounds, when can it be considered abandoned? Can it be thrown away? How should a reasonable person decide what's valuable and what's trash? Is cleaning up homeless camps just plain mean?
Representatives from the Colorado Springs chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union have said they believe disposing of the property of homeless people is wrong. But co-chair Loring Wirbel says the legal question is more nuanced.
"Any line you try and draw on the ground is going to be subjective by nature," he says.
And, he adds, courts haven't looked favorably on the private property rights of people who leave their belongings unattended in a post-9/11 world. Those items, he says, could be considered a threat.
Local ACLU board member Richard Haas says private property rights depend on a lot: what the item is, whether it's marked with an owner's name, even who is taking the item. A police officer, or another person acting under Colorado state law, has a greater responsibility to the property's owner than a private citizen does. Other considerations include the condition of the property, how long it's been there, and whether an owner can identified.
On top of all that, more than one law covers private property: federal constitutional protections, state criminal law and state civil law.
At a recent meeting attended by Colorado Veterans Alliance leader Rick Duncan, Mayor Lionel Rivera and Homeward Pikes Peak's Bob Holmes, among others, the discussion was civil. KCSB agreed to halt cleanups until new legal and ethical guidelines could be established. Duncan, who could not be reached for comment after the meeting, apparently agreed to hold off on a lawsuit on behalf of the homeless as long as compromise progress was being made(Editor's note: Click here for updated information on Rick Duncan).
City councilor Jerry Heimlicher says the meeting was part of a long process.
"We're not [just] going to base this on the law," he says. "We're going to base this on what's right."
Holmes says he's already been brainstorming changes. He says KCSB workers traditionally stored valuable property found at the camps, including IDs and paperwork, at the Police Operations Center. He'd like to look into storing the items at a location where the homeless might be more likely to retrieve them. He'd also like to see mental health and substance-abuse workers tag along on the sweeps.
Holmes adds that illegally camped homeless should be ticketed like anyone else, especially if police warned of the sweep in advance, which often happens.
Bottom line: Change is needed, but cleanups are, too.
"They're not the Waltons out there camping," Holmes says, referring to the old TV sitcom. "They'll relieve themselves three feet away from where their sleeping bag is."
Matt Parkhouse, a registered nurse and board member for Harbor House, has been researching and working with the homeless since 1972. He calls the sweeps "a necessary evil."
"This whole thing with the sweeps is a clash of rights and freedoms," he says.