If you keep your eyes focused upward, this forested little gully is pleasant on a summer day — the green tips of trees stretch toward the sun, and the murmur of a small stream sings in the background.
But look down, and you'd swear that several dump trucks backed up and tipped their loads here.
The scale of the mess in this privately-owned, southern downtown patch of land is so overwhelming that it takes a moment to make out the details. Old clothes, blankets, armchairs, tarps, tents, plastic wrappers, backpacks, palettes, cans, needle covers, pipes, green prescription bottles that once held marijuana, and scraps of pornography are scattered like fallen leaves. There's even an old blow-up doll, deflated and sunken into the dirt, its mouth still gaping open as though in awe of its surroundings.
On closer inspection, it's clear that some of the trees have been seared by out-of-control campfires into their upper branches. There's feces here too, and plastic bottles brimming with urine. There's even signs of possible past crimes — abandoned bikes and bike parts mix with the trash, and the personal effects of two young women, including student IDs and driver's licenses, are sitting in the dirt.
Perhaps 10 or 12 feet above the trickle of Shooks Run, the trash mingles with a tangle of branches. This is the high waterline from past floods — a warning of where this junk eventually will end up if it's not cleaned up. Ultimately, the property owner will have to clean this popular homeless camping spot, located north of East Fountain Boulevard between South Wahsatch Avenue and South Corona Street — only about 1.3 miles southeast of Colorado Springs City Hall.
Occupying part of this dystopian heap is 28-year-old James Wagner, rolled up in blankets on the ground. It's about 8:30 in the morning, and we have awakened him.
Wagner has bright blue eyes and a mess of sandy brown hair. Despite a disheveled appearance, he looks healthy.
James is the new face of homelessness in Colorado Springs. A young person. A drifter. A camper. A homeless person who lacks the desperation many have come to associate with living on the streets.
Wagner says he used to work in restaurant kitchens, but hasn't had a job in about a year. Originally from Virginia, he left his home state and decided to travel to the West Coast.
"I just got tired of being in the same place my whole life," he says. "I made it to the West Coast and then started coming back and got stuck here."
He went to a shelter a couple times over the winter, but he hated the crowds. So now, he just sleeps outside. Asked about his surroundings, Wagner says this isn't his mess — he says he tries to keep a clean camp and never stays anywhere long. He says he might like to go back home at some point.
The young man listens politely to the policemen who have approached him. Officers Brett Iverson and Chris Kelly are half of the Colorado Springs Police Department's four-man Homeless Outreach Team, charged with helping people like Wagner access services that can get them housed. The officers go through their normal shtick, asking Wagner where he's from, how he got on the streets, whether he's a veteran and what he help he needs. They tell him about area nonprofits and how to get to them.
Wagner listens. He nods. But there's no sense of urgency. And when the conversation is over, he simply picks up his few belongings and leaves.
With a shortage of summer shelter beds, little can be done to stem the explosion of homeless camps in the region, since the HOT Team only enforces the city's ban on camping on public property if there's a shelter where people can go. A 2016 one-day headcount, done in January in accordance with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development regulations, found that the city had 1,302 homeless people, up 21 percent from last year's count.
Of those, 311 people were unsheltered, up 28 percent from 2015 — and that was when emergency winter shelter beds were open. In mid-April, about 230 winter beds disappeared, leaving those who lived there to make do on the streets or find another program to house them.
It's hard to say how many might be unsheltered now. While the numbers make a guess of 550 seem reasonable, the HOT Team also notes that more drifters flock to the Springs in the summer months, leaving behind the muggy heat of the South.
The people living in homeless camps are not immune to the problems they cause, of course.
Officer Iverson describes cases where campers have accidentally set themselves on fire, and even died, when a campfire burned out of control. In the winter, some have frozen to death. And then there's the fact that living on the streets comes with no protection from others.
In May, a homeless woman was thrown from the Cimarron Street bridge by her homeless boyfriend, leaving her paralyzed, according to police. He then beat her, and, as she lay on the ground, raped her repeatedly for three days. Isaiah Jarvis Perrin, 21, was arrested for the attack, which only ended when a passerby found the woman and called police.
Earlier this month, Alan Mitcheff, 37, who was also living on the streets, was attacked in a Manitou Springs park by another homeless man, apparently over the ownership of a dog. Mitcheff was also left paralyzed.
Shawna Kemppainen, executive director of Urban Peak of the Pikes Peak Region, a youth shelter, says her biggest concern with the proliferation of homeless camps in the area is what happens to people when they are left exposed and vulnerable — like the raped woman.
"The recent case was horrifying," she says, "and equally horrifying to us is that a story of sexual assaults walks in every day at our shelter."
Kemppainen says that youths take a lot of risks living on the streets. Often, homelessness causes mental-health issues, alcoholism and drug use to "snowball." Young people tend to camp in groups for safety or companionship, but there's no telling whether the other group members can be trusted. Other times young people accept favors from people they meet — such as a place to stay — only to be asked for a favor in return, such as sex or delivering drugs, which they feel they can't refuse.
"That is far more on our minds than sanitation," Kemppainen says.
Aside from the obvious problem of having humans living on the streets, the camps come with a host of headaches: trash and feces that can seep into waterways or sully wild places and recreational areas; campfires that threaten to ignite massive wildfires; and crime that can be both perpetrated by the homeless population and targeted at it.
The camps aren't just concentrated near South Nevada Avenue; they are throughout the city, and perhaps more disturbingly, now in the forests surrounding the city. At a recent news conference, District Ranger Oscar Martinez for the U.S. Forest Service's Pikes Peak Ranger District said his small staff is facing a huge problem with insufficient resources: Camps also have popped up on nearby national forest land, overrun with trash and hazardous materials like human waste and drug needles, often with dangerous campfires that could threaten the dry forest. (The district has 47 people total, only six of whom might deal with the problem, and then only part-time.)
Camping is allowed on Forest Service property for only 14 days, even if the camp is moved, and using the forest as a place of residence is illegal. But Martinez says transient campers often aren't aware of the law. Thinking that they're complying with regulations, they'll move camps frequently, leaving behind trash, cribs, furniture, tents, drug needles, human waste — and even dogs tied to trees and various pet animals in cages, including ferrets, parrots and cats.
"These are all kind of social urban kinds of problems that as an agency we're not accustomed to dealing with," Martinez says.
And cleaning the camps, he says, can be dangerous for his staff.
"We're picking up stuff that's hazardous to my folks now, like sharps," he says. "We went to a camp a couple weeks ago where there were needles ... and all this other paraphernalia that we would typically not see on a forest property. And they started picking it up and one of our folks had it stuck on their boot. So it's forcing us to rethink what our proper protective gear looks like."
While the increasing number of recreational camps has led to unsafe fires and piles of trash, transient sites often are more expensive to clean up. That's because there's simply more stuff — including makeshift infrastructure, like bridges built by long-term campers. Each transient camp cleanup site is costing anywhere from $700 to $1,000 to restore, eating into a limited budget that could go to other priorities, like fire mitigation. Those clean-ups can take two to four people (and sometimes heavy equipment) half a day to a full day to finish.
Martinez says most transient camps are also near streams, creating a sanitation problem as there are generally no bathrooms near the camps. And the Ranger District, he says, is not accustomed to dealing with such hazardous waste, which can leak into the water supply.
Dawn Sanchez, fire prevention technician for the Ranger District, says the fires are also worrying — both from transient and recreational camps. She says she's been with the district for 15 years and has never seen so many camps, and many people do not put out their campfires properly — they should be cold to the touch.
"A homeless person leaving their campfire is the exact same as a person who is just up there for a day, going fishing, and left their campfire," she says. "It's all equal when it comes to fire."
Despite the fact that they're often hidden, Martinez says about four new transient camps are found in the forest every week, either by workers or the public. The camps are so prevalent that they're diverting resources from the Forest Service's normal work, leading to delays.
The Forest Service isn't the only organization taking notice. Manitou Springs Mayor Nicole Nicoletta says there's now a huge concentration of camps in the open space surrounding the town, usually in the woods or in caves. She says trash poses a huge problem, though sometimes residents clean up the sites. But she's most worried about a campfire touching off another major inferno. Manitou's fire department spokesperson, David Hunting, says, "That's always a concern, especially with the hot weather we have right now, things can get out of control very quickly."
A few years ago, he says, a homeless camp littered with cigarette butts did ignite a fire near the Manitou Incline trail. Hunting says that the Manitou fire department responds to all calls of smoke spotted and immediately puts out any fires that are found. And he says there are quite a few calls — Manitou residents tend to fear the sight of smoke in the hills after the scare of the 2012 Waldo Canyon Fire.
At the county level, Sheriff's Office Lt. JD Ross says he's been concerned with fires and sanitation, as well as the safety of children, at camps that have cropped up along Fountain Creek, near Manitou and on the Westside. He also gets complaints from people trying to use trails near camps.
Officers, who often arrive at the remote camps via horseback, try to get voluntary compliance from campers. But Ross says the Sheriff's Office plans to meet soon with the county attorney to talk about how to enforce the county's no-camping ordinance in light of flood risks this summer.
Meanwhile, in Colorado Springs, similar issues are cropping up. Springs Fire Department spokesman Steve Wilks says the department regularly extinguishes fires at homeless camps, or those set for recreational reasons. As bushes and trees continue to dry out over the summer, he says, those fires become a bigger concern.
Meanwhile, Jeff Besse, the Springs' stormwater quality manager, says illegal dumping and homeless camps pose a danger to waterways year-round. He's also concerned about human feces from homeless camps leaking into streams, as the city must comply with permit restrictions from the Environmental Protection Agency on E.coli levels in the Fountain Creek watershed.
"[The] U.S. Geological Survey tests for E.coli at various sites throughout the watershed, and we are notified if there is a risk," Besse wrote in an email. "Could it impact our permit? If the E.coli numbers ever got above a certain threshold, it could be a problem ... however, in my time, I have never seen that happen as a direct result from homeless camps."
Trash, poop and fire aren't the only problems. Officers Iverson and Kelley say homeless camps are often magnets for crime. They regularly see campers with obvious bruises and cuts from assaults, though few will "snitch." On the flip side, the officers say homeless people often commit crimes of opportunity — snatching purses, riding off on bikes, breaking into cars to take valuables left in plain sight. Some items are used to commit identity theft, but often the thief simply wants something easily traded or sold, perhaps in an effort to buy drugs.
It's not as if the city of Colorado Springs is ignoring the camps. To the contrary, Community Development Manager Aimee Cox is working with about three dozen people representing different agencies, mostly nonprofits that serve the homeless, to put together a plan to manage the camps in the months ahead.
That group split into committees to look at different issues, like trash pick-up and outreach, and then calculate expected needs and budgets. They will report back to Cox, who plans to look for funding and then accept bids for contracts to do the work.
Cox says she often gets calls from the public suggesting "easy" solutions. But, she says, those ideas usually aren't workable. The city did attempt to fund an emergency summer shelter, she says, but couldn't find a service provider willing to take on the job of staffing it. And the city has at least discussed opening a campground for the homeless — an often-cited solution that has been tried in other cities — but she says a camp would require all the same things a shelter would, such as security and bathrooms, without getting people off the streets. What's more, federal funds used for such facilities come with restrictions that make such a campground impossible.
"I don't know that the public recognizes the complexity of some of this," Cox says.
Police will enforce the city's no-camping and trespassing ordinances in certain areas and situations this summer, she says. For instance, no camps will be allowed along Fountain Creek between the Bijou Street bridge and the area near the intersection of Interstate 25 and Nevada Avenue.
"The entire reason we are restricting it is because of the exceptional flood risk," HOT Team Lt. Jeff Jensen says, adding that a device in the area measures water rise and sends alerts. Police drive the trails to alert campers and recreationalists when — or even before — the alarms go off. Jensen says warning signs are going up, as the homeless continue to camp in the area.
The no-camping and trespassing ordinances will also be enforced on private property and in parks, and could be enforced city-wide if beds are available in a local shelter. Unfortunately, Jensen says he has been seeing some female beds going unfilled in shelters, meaning not everyone is using the available resources. Adult male beds, however, tend to run at capacity.
"We fully recognize that individuals need a place to go," Jensen says. "We're just hoping that we can get people to use the beds and use the available resources when they're available to them."
On a positive note, Kemppainen says that the city will receive federal funds on July 1 (Friday) for rapid rehousing. That will help several programs and agencies, including Urban Peak, which plans to help 30-40 youths get started in apartments with the $89,000 it expects to receive.
Local nonprofits are working on putting together resources for the HOT Team to access, like diapers and water, in case campers have urgent after-hours needs. Ann Lantz, executive director of Ecumenical Social Services, says her nonprofit and others want to look into ways to expand hours to provide services like bathrooms, showers and meals, and they'd like to connect homeless people with day labor jobs.
The city is also looking at expanding its $45,000 contract with the nonprofit Keep Colorado Springs Beautiful (KCSB), which conducts clean-ups of the camps in conjunction with police (who must warn campers ahead of time, allow them to collect personal belongings and later return any personal belongings such as IDs or prescriptions found in the camps). Groups also adopt sections of the waterways and regularly pick up trash.
Dee Cunningham, executive director of KCSB, has been doing these clean-ups for 20 years, and she says the amount of trash her teams of volunteers collect has been steadily climbing since January. Between May 1, 2015 and May 30 of this year, KCSB collected about 22,000 tons of trash, or 164 30-cubic-yard construction dumpsters of junk. All of that was collected in 305 clean-ups, by 2,043 volunteers doing 12,801 hours of work. Most came from a single trail — Pikes Peak Greenway.
"It's such a tragedy," she laments, "for humanity, for the environment, all the way around."
Cunningham says the public may be tempted to help picking up the trash, but those people should work with a group that trains volunteers. For one thing, it's illegal to take someone's personal property, and it's often hard to distinguish a camp from a pile of trash. Also, there are very real dangers hidden in that trash.
"The syringe population has increased probably 20 times from five years ago," she says.
Cunningham says she's found bags of meth, various drug paraphernalia and drug needles woven into tents in an effort to protect them. And her teams have collected drug needles from the sides of trails where families ride their bikes.
"If someone were to fall," she says, "God forbid, they'd fall on it."
From her experience, Cunningham offers the public a piece of advice: Give to charities, not directly to the homeless. Her teams pick up grocery bags packed with rotting food, and bags full of linens and clothes that have been thrown on the side of the trail. Anything not used is tossed, and the charities in town provide plenty of food and essentials.
"I haven't seen it this bad literally in 20 years, when the camps were never cleaned really," she says. "It's a product of generosity."
Cunningham says she often talks with the campers. Most of those in the younger crowd, she says, tell her that they're in Colorado because marijuana is legal, and their camps tend to be the worst, often showing signs of other kinds of drug use. There are, she says, about 10 campers who have been on the streets for years, who never leave a trace at their camps. But they're a rarity.
Urban Peak has been doing outreach into homeless camps for over 10 years. In 2015, it worked with 415 youth in its street outreach program, a 27 percent increase over the year prior. That was partially due to extra city funding, which allowed the nonprofit to hire another outreach worker.
But not all the young homeless people want to come to the shelter. This summer, for the first time in her three years at the nonprofit, Kemppainen says a quarter to half of her shelter beds were unused every night early in the summer, though that's since decreased to about two or three vacant beds. She says the young people often don't like to abide by an early curfew or other rules, such as the need to at least appear sober. Others are anxious or see the shelter as a dead end.
But, while Cunningham and Iverson say homeless people openly tell them that they have come to Colorado specifically to access legal weed, Kemppainen thinks there's more to it, especially for young people. Most of those kids are local anyway, she says, and the others often moved here because they thought the state was rich with jobs. Most are looking for construction work, but others are under the false impression that they can easily break into the marijuana industry.
So while legal marijuana can contribute to Colorado's appeal, Kemppainen says it's not the only reason folks come here. What's more, she says, with homeless youth there is nearly always a much sadder reason that they first ended up on the streets, like an abusive parent. Living in camps, they risk encountering even more trauma.
"Younger people feel a little bit more invulnerable," Kemppainen says. "They're like, 'Oh, I'll be fine.' Unfortunately, a lot of times they aren't fine."
At least some of the camping problem should be resolved in November when Springs Rescue Mission opens a low-barrier, 150-bed, year-round shelter. Travis Williams, the nonprofit's vice president of advancement, says construction recently started on the two-phase project that will offer other amenities like laundry facilities, showers and a day center. But, he says, SRM is also looking at how to address the most pressing problem it sees as causing homelessness: a lack of affordable housing. Kemppainen agrees with that assessment.
For some, it may be puzzling to hear of a booming homeless population after reading headlines on a nearly daily basis trumpeting Colorado Springs' economic recovery. People are buying houses. Housing prices are going up. There's less unemployment. Lots of jobs are available.
But Williams puts it this way: "There are not a lot of affordable housing options in Colorado Springs, so when the economy is doing great and housing prices are on the rise ... that starts to put a strain on people."
Consider: In March, Colorado Springs rents rose faster than in any city in the nation, an astonishing 11.4 percent compared with a year earlier, according to a survey by Apartment List.
ESM's Lantz says her organization is one of the few offering rent assistance to families in danger of becoming homeless. In its last fiscal year (which runs through June), ESM helped about 470 families stay in their homes instead of ending up on the streets. Often, the crisis was due to an unexpected expense like a car repair or a child's broken arm. But Lantz says it's getting harder and harder to help families like that — funders no longer want to give money for rent assistance. Instead, money is directed to transitional housing, meaning people have to be homeless before they can get help.
For every family ESM helps with rent assistance, Lantz says, the agency turns away two others for lack of funding. Some get help elsewhere, perhaps from relatives, Others keep calling ESM until resources are available. The rest lose their homes to foreclosure or eviction.
In other words, for people at the bottom, things aren't getting better. Also, not everyone wants to get off the streets — and some are so sick that they don't even know how.
CSPD's HOT Team was founded in 2009, in the midst of the city's biggest homeless crisis. The recession was brutal, people were losing their homes and their jobs, and a tent city had sprung up along Monument Creek in the downtown core with more than 600 tents.
Interestingly, Iverson, one of the original HOT Team officers, speaks of that time with a touch of sentimentality. Those people, he says, wanted help.
"The majority of people out here they will tell you that they'd rather stay out here and live that way than either waste their money on rent or something like that," he says. "It's just a lifestyle choice. Or they don't have the money because of the drugs and alcohol."
Indeed, of the four people the officers encounter this particular morning, nobody seems overly thrilled with the prospect of seeking help. One man, a young veteran, says he prefers living on the streets because he doesn't like being around people. As he's walking away from the camp, Iverson says that if the man truly is an honorably discharged vet, it might take as little as a day to get him into housing with a veterans program.
Iverson estimates about 40 percent of the homeless folks he contacts are like James Wagner and the young veteran — young, free and not interested in help. Many are from out of state, and often, when pushed, Iverson says they admit they came to Colorado at least in part because marijuana is legal here. (That homeless headcount from January found that 28 percent of the unsheltered homeless population was from out of state, compared with just 17 percent the year before.) Iverson has even encountered families who came to the state with no job prospects, simply because they wanted to access the drug.
But Iverson adds that, unlike during the recession, it's rare to come across children in the camps, though recently the officers did stumble upon an intoxicated man passed out next to a stroller that held a 2-month-old baby sitting fully exposed to the sun (the child was taken by social services).
It's far more common to see young adults, and another big population is people with mental illness.
On this bright morning, the first person officers encounter is a man named Darryl. He is asleep when we approach the camp and verbally combative when awakened. Darryl's angry ramble is hard to understand, though the stream of curse words translates.
The two officers say Darryl normally camps with a man they call "Hippie" who wears a lot of tinfoil because he's paranoid that the government is spying on him. The two have tents constructed out of tarps, and five shopping carts brimming with junk. There's trash here too, though nothing like that area beside Shooks Run southeast of downtown.
Actually, it's sort of nice here, even if you look down. Fountain Creek bubbles, the grass is soft and green, light filters through the trees. Unfortunately for Darryl and Hippie, they can't stay here. The property, owned by the Colorado Department of Transportation, is part of the Interstate 25/Cimarron Street interchange project. They're going to have to move on.
Jensen says it's likely to be the same story for many of the area's homeless campers in the upcoming months. There are better and worse places to camp, but no truly ideal way to live on the streets.
"I think it's going to be a serious issue we'll be facing until the opening of the Springs Rescue Mission shelter," he says,
Iverson doesn't allow himself to entertain the idea that Hippie and Darryl will be off the streets soon. On average, he says, it takes about 75 contacts to convince a homeless person to seek help. And that's for folks without psychiatric issues.
"Take Darryl," Iverson says. "Perfect example. He's not getting a job."
People like Darryl, with a mental illness, are the one segment of the homeless population for whom there are few resources. For people with advanced mental illness, the help Iverson has to offer — counseling, help with resumés and job skills, drug treatment — just isn't the right fit.
In all likelihood, he'll be on the streets for the foreseeable future. He won't be alone.v
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