December 17, 2009 News » Cover Story

When hell freezes over 

What's the story with all those tents downtown? That depends on which one you wander into

I think about her at night now.

Driving my car over the frozen Cimarron Street bridge, watching the massive white exhale of the Martin Drake Power Plant clambake the stars, I think, "She's down there."

Korrina, Korrina. Gal, where you been so long?

The day I met Korrina Fisher, it was so blasted cold that your saliva froze on your front teeth — aching, miserable, worm-right-through-your-coat cold. Korrina came out from a back room at Peak Vista Homeless Health Center and sat on the far end of a bench. She put her hands together in her lap, hunched over, hung her head, and peered over at me with her blue eyes. She said nothing until I stepped toward the door.

"You leavin'?" she asked, almost frantically.

No, I told her, I'd be right back.

She waited for me. When I sat back down, I quickly realized that Korrina was so soft-spoken I couldn't hear her from a few feet away. I waved her over to sit by me. And she offered me an embarrassed smile — the type you see from 2-year-olds hiding behind their mothers' knees.

In fact, though Korrina was 28, everything about her reminded me of a little girl. Her massive, filthy, pale blue jacket hung ridiculously from her frail frame. Her long, greasy blond hair seemed nearly too much for her head to hold up.

The whole world seemed three sizes too big for Korrina Fisher. You shudder to think of a girl like this on the streets.

Losing everything

There are around 150 tents — and more every week — in the creek beds south and west of downtown between Dorchester Park and the Bijou Street bridge.

This is Tent City, Colorado Springs.

Some of the people here have been homeless for years. Others are recent victims of the recession. There's all sorts: old men, middle-aged women, teenagers and, according to some reports, even children.

Last I heard, Korrina and her boyfriend, 29-year-old Chris Torrez, lived in a tent huddled under a bridge, just east of Interstate 25.

In the morning, the homeless walk up the frozen banks, still smelling of campfires. They head to the Marian House soup kitchen for lunch. Or they walk over to the R.J. Montgomery New Hope Center — otherwise known as the shelter — to get warm on cold days. Korrina goes around the back side of the shelter, where the medical clinic opened last October.

The place is clean and new. The morning I meet her, the patients wait their turns in plastic chairs. One woman hacks behind a paper mask. Her friend, a rather animated meth addict, tries to comfort her.

Korrina could be a piece of furniture. She moves only her little fingers, which she rubs together slowly, nervously. Korrina tells me she has come here for therapy because she suffers from depression and anxiety.

Who can blame her? Poverty has sly hands. It robbed Korrina of everything she had — even her dignity, even her most basic sense of safety.

But first it came for her boy.

"I didn't have a stable home for a couple months when I had my son," she says. "I went to my dad's house basically because I was tired of living where I was living and I wasn't making it very well. I was in Arkansas then.

"My dad's pretty violent — or has an anger problem — and me and him don't get along. We got into it, and he kicked me and my son out knowing we had nowhere else to go. It went downhill from there."

With no alternatives, she asked her son's paternal grandfather to look after him for a few weeks until she got back on her feet. She says he agreed, then called the Department of Human Services. Korrina fought for two years to get her boy back — holding down a job and a home. Last she heard, the child — now 9 — was up for adoption.

"I don't do drugs or anything like that," she says, "so there's really no reason they shouldn't have given me my son back."

Years passed. Korrina had two daughters with a boyfriend, and the family relocated to the Springs. She worked at Wal-Mart, then Arby's, to support her clan. The boyfriend stopped working, then stopped taking care of the girls, then left. Balancing her duties as a mom with a full-time job proved impossible because Korrina couldn't afford day care. So, a year ago, she lost her job, then her home. The girls — now 4 and 2 — went to stay with relatives. After searching desperately for a job, Korrina lost her hope, too.

Hard to believe there was anything left to lose. But there was.

Just up the road

"This is where our first death was," Police Officer Brett Iverson says. "Nate."

Nathan Keliher, 26, was high on drugs when he wandered down to the creek near the Cimarron bridge in late summer, slipped and hit his head in the water.

Iverson's patrol car exits onto Interstate 25, shadowing the vehicle carrying Officers M.J. Thomson and Dan McCormack. The three together make up the Colorado Springs Homeless Outreach Team, otherwise known as the HOT team. Their job is to connect the homeless to services, and to try to keep them safe. When the nights are awful, like a recent one that dropped to -13 degrees, the three walk the camps, persuading anyone who hasn't already left to go to the shelter or a motel room.

Iverson has been on the police force for a decade. In addition to leading HOT, he's in charge of the bicycle cops and puts in hours as a school resource officer. He says other cops sometimes give him trouble for being on the HOT team — they say it's a waste of time to help the homeless, and that it's not "real police work."

Rounding a corner into a residential area, Iverson drives to where a street dead-ends into railroad tracks and an irrigation ditch. We're near North Nevada Avenue. Down a steep and icy incline are a few neat tents, the homes of Steve Stump, Chuck Graham and Chuck's fiancée, Ellen Meyer. Here, too, are two rambunctious dogs, Buddy and Freedom, and a tiny black kitten named Demon.

Like most I stumble upon during two frigid December mornings, this group greets me warmly.

Ellen scoops a shivering Demon up and tucks him in her coat. She tells me she rescued Demon from the pound, where he was to be put down. No one wanted a black cat.

"We do keep them well-fed," Ellen says of the animals, even as Freedom makes off with the now-frozen remainder of last night's dinner.

Ellen and Chuck have been down here for nine months. She used to groom dogs until that work evaporated. Chuck is also out of work. But they haven't given up hope. The police are on the lookout for some nice clothes for Ellen. She'll need them if she scores a job interview.

In the meantime, the clan will keep living here, since Ellen isn't too fond of the shelter: "They treat you like animals up there," she says.

And they don't like Tent City.

"[T]here's less drama and less crap you got to deal with here," notes Steve.

One frozen tepee

When the cops and I head to Tent City, we tromp through the snow to where a tiny tepee sits collapsed and frozen solid beside the creek.

A few feet away, a woman who says her name is Sharrie is snuggled into her tent. Her husband, Ronald, lost his job as a heavy equipment operator. Before that, she says, he worked as a firefighter in Utah before retiring.

Ronald is a sturdy guy with a big mustache. Sharrie is disabled. The two are proud folks who say they don't believe in panhandling. They delight in telling the police how they've been helping their neighbors. Giving them eggs. Caring for their cats.

"We've been helping so many people," Sharrie says warmly.

"Don't take this the wrong way," Thomson says, "but you need to help yourselves."

Sharrie nods. And coughs. She is ill, and the night will be cold. Ronald says he'll pay for a motel room for the night, and hopefully keep his wife from getting worse.

"We're gonna make it," Sharrie says. "We're one of the fortunate ones."

Sharrie suddenly looks forlorn, and her eyes glance toward the tepee. Just days after being featured in a Gazette story, the tepee's owner, 53-year-old Ray Medina, died on Thanksgiving morning. It was the second death the HOT team witnessed since forming in early summer.

Moving service

Before lunch, the officers and I drive to a grouping of small apartments near North Nevada Avenue. The place caters to people with bad credit and rental histories, charging $800 a month for a cramped one-bedroom.

Inside, 52-year-old Denise Lierly is sobbing, surrounded by boxes. Her 11-year-old yellow Lab-Chow mix lies moping at her feet, occasionally lifting one puppy-dog eyebrow as the cops tread in and out of the apartment, packing the boxes into the patrol cars.

"This is nontraditional police stuff that we do," Thomson says with a sarcastic smile, as he steers a cart of boxes.

Each officer is on the radio, calling different service agencies. You hear bits and pieces of the conversation.

"Do you think we could get her into a room?"

"No, that won't work, she has a dog."

"No, she won't part with it."


Denise is a small woman with soft, straight hair and glasses. She used to operate construction equipment, a job that she says brought in up to $2,000 a week. But after four bad marriages — one of which was extremely abusive — and a boyfriend who stole all her things and took off, Denise was left destitute and jobless.

That's what landed her in Tent City the first time. She was there for four months until a concerned citizen offered to help her into an apartment. It almost didn't work; Denise had to be picky about where she lived, she explains, because some spaces can remind her of being tied down to her bed and imprisoned in her own house for years by an ex-husband.

But with some help from the do-gooder, Denise was able to get this space, which she shared with a roommate. And she was on the list to work as a bell ringer for the Salvation Army.

Now, it appears, all is lost. Denise is out of money. She can't make rent.

"I just thought I got stuff together with a job," she says. "I thought everything was going to be good."

She wipes her tears with a tissue.

"Once you're down low, it's hard to get back up again," she says. "I just never thought I'd have to go back [to the camps]."

The officers aren't so keen on returning Denise to Tent City. Getting someone off the streets is difficult. Putting Denise back there would mean starting over from square one with her. But Denise can't go to the shelter because she won't part with her dog, Drake, and the shelter doesn't allow animals.

"I want more than nothin' to get a job, and get back on my feet," she says. "I don't want to go on like this. I'm a nervous wreck. I've got hives all over."

Finally, the police talk to a well-known local homeless advocate who agrees to pay for Denise to stay a week in a motel, out of his own pocket — a last chance.

"What a wonderful man," Denise says through tears.

The cops move Denise, Drake and the two cars full of belongings into a North Nevada motel room. As we drive down the road, I think we must be quite a sight. The patrol cars loaded down with people and boxes. A whining dog hanging his head out the back window.

As we leave, the police say they'll make sure someone comes over with food, since Denise doesn't have any.

Then they wave goodbye, leaving Denise with one week to put all the pieces back together.

Power outage

I meet 49-year-old Thomas Costa at the homeless medical clinic.

First, I notice his face. Clean-shaven. Not a spot of stubble.

Then his clothes. Clean. Neat.

Costa doesn't live in Tent City. He lives in a Ramada, all he can afford with his disability check.

In another life, Thomas was a boilermaker who worked across the West at power plants. He made good money until 1989, when a severe head injury put him out of work and onto disability. But he couldn't sit still, and in 1999, he went back to work. He neglected to mention that part to the government, and was living high on the hog for several years with both his salary and full disability.

"I got caught ... they cut my disability down to $650 a month," Thomas says. "I was at $1,400 a month, which is just about enough to keep a roof over your head. Six hundred a month won't do that."

Thomas couldn't afford his house payments. Within a year, he was living in his car, abusing drugs, getting in trouble with the law, and spending what was left of his money on attorney fees. To make matters worse, Thomas' heart failed him in 2005.

As if to prove his point, Thomas pulls his shirt down and reveals a scar across his heart.

He says he's had five heart surgeries now. And yet, he has been lucky. Local cardiologist Dr. Ted Eastburn has been treating him free of charge, and Thomas says both hospitals have been good to him. He still goes to the homeless clinic for the small stuff, though.

He's waiting in the plastic chairs with a handful of others, including Korrina.

Korrina, Korrina

"Your boyfriend was saying that you had some experience with going to the hospitals around here, right?" I ask, leaning toward Korrina.

"Right," she says, with a defeated laugh. "I went to Penrose and Memorial, and they basically didn't treat me very well and didn't give me, like, medication for what I needed it for. They didn't really help me."

Korrina looks down at her fingers, still rubbing them together.

"What were you, um, needing?" I ask her.

"Well, the, in the last year that I went to either hospital — just a couple, few months ago I was sexually assaulted and I went to the hospital right after it happened, to Memorial. They were nice to me there, most of the people. They took this one lady, I forgot what she's called, but she specializes in that area for people that get sexually assaulted, and she took all kinds of DNA evidence from me and pictures of my — injuries."

"Were you beat up as well, then?"

"Yeah," she says, her voice barely breaking a whisper. "I was beat up and raped. But, um, they, when it happened I got a concussion and they did a CT scan, I guess, on my back and my head, and they said that there was nothing wrong, like seriously wrong with me, but they did admit that I had a head concussion and my back was hurtin' really bad and all the injuries — I was really in pain. And I was also, like, really, really dizzy. And they gave me Tylenol when I was at the hospital, and that's all they gave me, and that doesn't do anything when you're in that much pain.

"And I kept tellin' them that I was dizzy and anytime I would move just a couple inches, I would be really dizzy, and they never gave me anything for being dizzy. Even when — they didn't give me any pain medication or dizziness medication, and they didn't give me any prescriptions either, to get it after I left. So, they didn't really help me, because I was still in pain, and I was still dizzy. And they only kept me for six hours, and I found out that they're supposed to keep you for 24 hours if you have a head concussion, and they didn't, they just took me home."

"Did they just put you out the door? Or did they put you in a taxi, or how did they release you?"

"Well, I asked the, I said — I told them that I was homeless — and I said, 'Is there any way that you can get me a taxi?' And they said, 'No, we only help with bus passes. We can give you a bus pass.' And I said, 'Well, that's not going to work, because I'm so dizzy I can't walk but a couple feet without like having to sit down — because I'm so dizzy, I can't walk that far.' So, because I was persistent about it, they gave me a taxi back to my camp. But after that I was sent home with no meds or anything like that. ... It was pretty messed up how they did me."

Korrina and her boyfriend Chris stumbled back to their tent. Korrina couldn't move for days. She just lay there. Chris used what little money they had to buy her pain-killers at Wal-Mart.

Korrina comes here now, to the clinic, for mental health treatment. But she still has no safe place to go. No place to lock out all the people who would hurt her, or the cold.

And that's why, when I pass over Cimarron bridge on my way home, I think of Korrina. And I try to shut out the thought that sometime this winter, the HOT team will probably see its third death in Tent City.

Taking my eyes off the road, I search for her, scanning the area where the tents sit blanketed in snow.

Korrina, Korrina. Gal, you're on my mind.

And, sometimes I actually see her, walking up the frozen path in her telltale, pale blue coat.

And I know that she's OK. For now.



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