As self-proclaimed mayor of Ezekiel's Meadow, Royal James serves as peacemaker and spokesman for about 15 homeless people. On this Monday morning, he's also serving as chief medic as he sits on the carpet stoop outside the tent of his friend Patch.
Patch had a rough night after his bare foot came in contact with a flame inside his tent, leaving an oozing welt near his toes. Given the pain and the nastiness of the wound, James advises against a simple visit to the local homeless medical clinic.
"I think you should go the ER," says James, who prefers not to use his real last name.
With the mayor's advice issued, other residents of the encampment rally to help Patch to a car parked a few dozen yards away. Then James gets back to talking about his hopes and aspirations for this creekside community southeast of downtown, which now is probably the closest thing Colorado Springs has to a tent city.
"I'm really trying to get some good press," James says.
Much of last year's news for local homeless people centered on cleanup efforts that sometimes deprived those who sleep in the open of vital documents, medicine and supplies. The sweeps were suspended last fall under the threat of a lawsuit from homeless advocates.
Now the sweeps are resuming under new policies that say the homeless must be given 72 hours' notice before a cleanup, and that their tents and personal property should be left alone.
James, who has lived at the meadow for most of two years, says he felt "hunted" when sweeps could upend his life every few weeks. As sweeps return, he wants people to see his encampment as a benefit to the city, rather than an eyesore.
Most residents of the meadow are among an estimated 500 local chronically homeless. But James notes there's also space for recession victims: A single dad and his teen daughter stayed for a few weeks before finding a spot in transitional housing. James and other residents generally keep an extra tent for newly homeless people, and they will help them find blankets and other necessities.
"We do a lot of good stuff for people who get down," James says.
An extra tent
In recent months, tent cities have sprouted from Fresno, Calif., to St. Petersburg, Fla. Some have grown to hundreds of residents, stretching with families and working folks who lost their jobs and homes to the faltering economy.
Ezekiel's Meadow is much smaller: Tucked into a clump of trees less than a mile from City Hall, it holds about a dozen tents and a few fire rings. It could almost pass for a National Forest campground, albeit one following a July 4 blowout. Since few residents have cars, hauling trash away can be tough.
But Robert "Carnie" Mundt, who lived out of a backpack during the 20-plus years he worked at carnivals, says that "compared to the average homeless camp, this one looks like a village."
A neighboring church and other businesses provide water and bathrooms, and a 15-minute walk brings residents to the Marian House Soup Kitchen and other local services.
James says safety comes with camping in a group, and adds that residents try to stop the fighting, drug-dealing and other activities that could attract police.
"This is something that works," he says.
Homeless camps are forbidden in Colorado Springs parks, but they spring up along public easements that border creeks and trails. (Ezekiel's Meadow is actually abandoned train property, which also puts it into a legal gray area.)
Last year's legal dispute centered on the extent to which homeless residents have private-property rights for possessions left in these areas. In the past, many say, volunteers conducting sweeps for Keep Colorado Springs Beautiful, a local nonprofit, would toss their tents, sleeping bags and other property.
'Like somebody's home'
That won't happen now, says Cmdr. Kurt Pillard of the Colorado Springs Police Department. Homeless advocates will serve as "overseers," helping cleanup crews decide what property is abandoned and what is being used. Areas to be swept will be posted at least 72 hours in advance, Pillard says, and tents being used should be left alone.
"It will be treated just like it's somebody's home," Pillard says.
Under the new policies, police supervised a sweep April 18 near Wagner Park on East Pikes Peak Avenue with no reported problems. Saturday, cleanup crews will work along Fountain Creek between Interstate 25 and Manitou Springs.
Patrick Ayers, a homeless advocate with the local chapter of Catholic peace group Pax Christi, says he'll be there with a video camera to make sure things go as planned. If they do, Ayers says, the new approach will be welcome — especially if it's reflective of broader change at the police department and in the city.
James puts it this way: "What we who already reside in this small community need is mutual respect."