City ordinance aimed at cracking down on creekside camping 

Water worries

click to enlarge Trash piles like this one, near the confluence of Shooks Run and Fountain Creek, aren’t uncommon along the Springs’ waterways. That waste can end up polluting water. - MATTHEW SCHNIPER
  • Matthew Schniper
  • Trash piles like this one, near the confluence of Shooks Run and Fountain Creek, aren’t uncommon along the Springs’ waterways. That waste can end up polluting water.
The problem keeps resurfacing: Trash, feces and other pollutants left by homeless campers are seeping into our urban creeks. Along Colorado Springs’ waterways and trails, campers pose a number of health and safety risks — including to themselves.

Though camping on trails and public property can theoretically mean jail time, the Colorado Springs Police Department’s Homeless Outreach Team (HOT Team) is more likely to offer resources than handcuffs to the average camper upon first encounter. But a proposed city ordinance — born partly of concern about effects of camping on water quality — could change the way officers enforce camping bans around creeks.

That proposed ordinance, pushed by City Councilors Tom Strand and Merv Bennett, would specifically ban all municipal camping within 100 feet of a public stream. Violations would be punishable by a fine of up to $2,500 and/or up to 189 days in jail.

Colorado Springs has had a camping ban for years, but police currently have to give camp occupants 24-hour notice (under department policy, not city code) and ensure there’s shelter space available before dismantling camps, Strand said at a recent City Council meeting. The new ordinance, Strand says, would make the ban easier to enforce by doing away with those requirements.

But the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado has voiced concern about the proposed ordinance. Legal director Mark Silverstein says that although health and sanitation concerns are legitimate, more camping restrictions aren’t the right answer. Silverstein adds that people are sleeping outside because they can’t get housing, and the city needs to do more to “address the crisis of homelessness.” Courts, it should be noted, have found that cities cannot outlaw homeless people’s basic survival.

It’s worth noting that the main push for the ordinance probably isn’t the safety of homeless people, or even the enjoyability of the city’s trails. Instead, the ordinance cites the above-standard presence of E. coli in the Fountain Creek watershed, indicated by a September study by the U.S. Geological Survey.

It’s unknown what has led to the current elevated levels, though city staff note that a 2007 study by USGS did tie at least some of the contamination to human waste. However, the decade-old study didn’t explicitly prove whether a significant portion of the E. coli came from human waste, instead concluding that birds, such as those roosting under bridges, were the “probable source” of contamination.

By reducing the amount of waste that gets into stormwater runoff, the ordinance is intended to help the city meet federal requirements for its Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System permit, or MS4, said city spokesperson Kim Melchor. And that’s of note, since the city is currently being sued by the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Justice, among other co-plaintiffs, for alleged violations of the Clean Water Act due to poor stormwater controls. Whatever the cause of the E. coli problem, human waste near creeks is a serious problem, says Dee Cunningham, executive director of Keep Colorado Springs Beautiful. The nonprofit works with the police department’s HOT Team to clean up camps after officers have told their occupants to move on.

“It’s really hazardous to the environment,” Cunningham says. “The human waste does go into the groundwater or it goes into the actual creek.”

The city attempted to alleviate the problem by installing portable restrooms near trails during the Great Recession, and Dumpsters along some trails this April, but Cunningham doesn’t think either method was effective.

“The port-a-potties were either set on fire, full of what they’re not supposed to be full of, or toppled over,” she says. “Good-hearted people may ... throw their stuff into the Dumpster, but there are always people that want to get in the Dumpster, throw everything out and see what’s in there, and then they don’t put what they threw out back in.”

In addition to feces and urine, hazardous waste such as used syringes poses dangers to hikers and cyclists. Cunningham estimates that her staff and volunteers pick up at least 500 discarded syringes a month in camps and on trails.

To put the amount of trash in perspective: Four roll-off Dumpsters were used to clean up a camp where 55 people had been living behind Springs Rescue Mission earlier this year, police Lt. Michael Lux says.
Another camping concern, cited by Strand and other councilors in support of the ordinance, is the safety of campers, as campsites along creeks are susceptible to flash flooding.

Currently, there are two camping ordinances in place in Colorado Springs: City Code 9.9.404 pertains to park property and City Code 9.6.110 to other public property.

While officers patrolling parks are more likely to issue citations, the HOT Team focuses on patrolling creek beds. The team’s goal is “to find out why people are camping and try to connect them to services who can help them into a more permanent housing solution,” Lux says in an email.

Lux also says that if the creekside camping ban passes, the HOT Team will maintain the same priorities. But they won’t be posting notice for some camps before clearing them, and the requirement that shelter beds be available when someone is booted may no longer apply. That requirement, Lux says, was put in place after consideration of several federal court cases against municipalities that held it was unconstitutional to issue citations to homeless campers when no shelter beds were available. It’s unclear how the proposed ordinance would
overcome that precedent.

The homeless population in El Paso County increased 9.8 percent between 2017 and 2018, according to data from the annual Point-in-Time count. Despite the addition of more emergency/winter shelter beds, the unsheltered population increased even more, by 12.2 percent.

Shawna Kemppainen, executive director of Urban Peak Colorado Springs, a nonprofit that serves youth experiencing homelessness, says that the ordinance might be “legally problematic” for the city because of the shelter-bed issue.

Kemppainen believes the city shouldn’t focus too narrowly on creekside camping and shelter beds, because “the fact is, some people are not going to come into shelters.” Instead, she says City Council should look at ways to ensure there is enough affordable housing in the community.

“I absolutely understand that healthy ecosystems and environment and clean, safe water is important to all of us,” Kemppainen says. “And so is decent, secure housing for every person. So I think if we’re going to be so attentive to the health of a waterway, we should be at least equally attentive to the health and well-being of individuals and families who are living in homelessness.”

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