New homeless camp is a first in self-governance 

The Last Sanctuary

click to enlarge This impromptu tent city can stay, for now. - NAT STEIN
  • Nat Stein
  • This impromptu tent city can stay, for now.

There's nowhere to go — that's the reality for hundreds of folks living day-to-day in this city without a home. Shelter space is short, trails and bridges are off-limits and camping on public property invites unwanted attention from police.

Faced with no other choice, a group of about 100 homeless people have formed an impromptu camp outside Springs Rescue Mission, 5 W. Las Vegas St. And now they're getting organized to stave off sweeps.

Last Thursday night, "Raven" called a camp meeting. Speaking to her assembled compatriots, the de facto leader (who requested her real name be withheld) made a plea for order, cleanliness and communal care.

"There are some people trying to help us, but we need to help ourselves, you guys," she said. "We've got to keep it clean."

Among those trying to help is the owner of the land — Springs Rescue Mission. As the city's preeminent faith-based provider of homeless relief and rehabilitation, SRM has been in overdrive trying to get new shelter beds online before winter arrives.

"We were aiming to open those beds Nov. 1," SRM's Travis Williams told the Indy, but unforeseen circumstances delayed construction. "Lord willing, we'll be open in the earlier part of November, but definitely by mid-month."

Meanwhile, SRM is allowing their would-be clients to camp. "We didn't necessarily encourage it," Williams said, "but we haven't stopped it either."

South of downtown has long been a hotspot for unsheltered people — given its proximity to SRM, Fountain Creek and cheap motels — but business owners are often displeased.

Rick Uhl, co-owner of the Ski Shop, says he's had issues with people sleeping in his parking lot and has had to clean up feces. "It's a big problem; it really is," he said.

Despite that, police spokesman Lt. Howard Black says, "There's really nothing that serious out there." Litter is the most common complaint.

Mitch Hammes in the city's Code Enforcement Division describes the new encampment as an "open case" but says there've been no violations. "Code enforcement is monitoring the conditions of the property and will take appropriate action if violations are found," he said.

So really it's the perception of impropriety that campers are trying to proactively address.

"We need to start cracking down on asinine behavior that doesn't belong in a community setting like this," Raven said. "You've got to take some pride in where you live and, right now, I know it's a tent, but it's what we've got, and it's home."

At the meeting, the camp established some basic ground rules that were approved by a new, self-governing council: respect quiet hours from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m.; clean up after oneself and others; and treat nearby portable toilets gently. Volunteers assumed rotating "security" duties to keep the camp safe, clean and orderly. No more people are allowed to join the camp, per SRM's request.

Campers are also realistic that while additional shelter capacity may provide some relief, there'll still be a great need. The latest Point-in-Time count put the number of chronically homeless people in El Paso County at 387, but folks on the ground — both living and doing outreach — say that the number is likely much higher.

That's why supporting one another is crucial, campers say. A list of items needed at the encampment, informally dubbed the Last Sanctuary, is posted on the Coalition for Compassion and Action's Facebook page.

"We're family out here," Raven said, "so we've got to have each others' backs."

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