When two emergency winter shelters closed in mid-April, some 230 shelter beds disappeared. For the homeless of Colorado Springs, it's going to be a long summer.
Shortly before the closures, Pikes Peak Continuum of Care, a partnership of homeless providers, sent out a press release that read like a warning: The potential impacts of too little housing includes homeless people at risk for crime and hypothermia, and police being unable or unlikely to enforce the city's ban on camping on public property.
The release urged the public to expect "more people living outside in public spaces such as creekside trails, the edges of parks, and abandoned spaces. Existing shelters in our community already operate at capacity daily, so people formerly in the winter shelters are unlikely to all find other shelter space immediately."
Community Development Manager Aimee Cox says the city is fully aware of what this means. At the start of summer tourism season, and the time when people are most likely to venture onto urban trails and into parks and open spaces, the city's burgeoning homeless population will be much more visible. Aside from safety risks and the image problem, the rise in homeless camps can create environmental problems as trash and feces collect in the city's waterways.
Cox says she'll soon be talking with city staff, nonprofit leaders and other players to discuss how to deal with the issue. Since there won't be a shelter bed for every needy person, Cox says, "We shouldn't be sweeping camps." But, she adds, "I don't know what the answers are."
In 2009, a new neighborhood sprung up along urban creek beds. Particularly dense around the Cimarron Street bridge, it was dubbed "tent city" and was occupied by homeless people living in nylon tents, make-do teepees and lean-tos. In late 2009, police counted 163 tents along the creek from Dorchester Park to the Marian House Soup Kitchen.
"Our hope is that we're not going to get back to 2009 again," Colorado Springs Police Homeless Outreach Team (HOT Team) Officer Brett Iverson says. "It's going to be more manageable."
Within the old tent city, there were micro-neighborhoods. Some groupings of tents were surrounded by trash, feces, empty liquor bottles and drug paraphernalia. Others were relatively clean and organized. Some living in the camps were recent victims of the recession, driven from their homes and looking for any way off the streets, while others were chronically homeless.
With no restrooms available, most people simply squatted in the bushes when nature called. Presumably, the raw sewage drained into the creek. That led to a citizen complaint to the Environmental Protection Agency, which put the city on edge. Homeless campers were also known to commit and fall victim to crimes, including drug abuse, assaults and rapes.
"You had different groups," Iverson remembers. "You had a lot of drug activity within [some of] those groups and a lot of territorial stuff."
The tent city was unsustainable and met its end when City Council banned camping on public property in 2010. But, moved by an outpouring of public sympathy, Council asked the HOT Team to be kind when enforcing the ordinance, offering each person help and not ticketing anyone unless they refused a shelter bed. Over the past seven years, the HOT Team has handed out just 12 tickets for violations of the no-camping ordinance. As a rule, they won't ticket someone for camping if there's no shelter bed available.
Cox says the city doesn't want to punish someone for surviving on the streets when they have nowhere else to go. The city won't endorse camping as a solution to homelessness, she says, nor will it take on the responsibility of setting up an official homeless campground.
The trick, she says, will be figuring out how to manage camping over the summer. By November, the city hopes Springs Rescue Mission will have completed an expansion that will include 150 year-round shelter beds. That should help move people out of the camps and hopefully into a better life.
Shawna Kemppainen, executive director of Urban Peak Colorado Springs, says there's been a huge push lately to address the lack of shelter beds, and Urban Peak is one of many charities looking for ways to expand. On the bright side, she says some government money "in the pipeline" could allow Urban Peak, which helps homeless youths, to set up 30 to 40 young people in apartments over the summer. The money could also help other charities house as many as 95 adults.
Aside from Springs Rescue Mission, no charity has "the proper bandwidth" to build another major shelter, Kemppainen says. And while SRM's expansion will reduce the problem, there are likely 200 to 300 more homeless people right now than shelter beds, meaning even that project won't meet the need.
"It's not as if there's a recent failure in the system," Kemppainen says. "It's that there has been this gap all along and it's just now being addressed."