Colorado Springs News, Sports & Business

Hundreds of Springs homeless have found help

BARBARA COTTER Updated: September 16, 2010 at 12:00 am

For more than half of his 55 years, Alvin “Tramp” King has been homeless, as much by choice as by circumstance.

“I’d get an apartment, then get tired of being inside,” he says. “Outside, there’s no responsibilities.”

But other forces were at work besides a desire to live a carefree life. He shot up cocaine. He drank. He had a criminal record. It wasn’t exactly the stuff of a stable lifestyle.

“I’d have a job, quit it, get drunk and get high,” he says. “My downfall was drugs and alcohol. I lost total trust in everyone. I didn’t care about anyone. I didn’t care about myself.”

Six months ago, he gave it all up — the drugs, the alcohol, the tent he called home — in part because Colorado Springs police were about to start enforcing a controversial new city ordinance prohibiting camping on public property.

“That really cinched it there. I didn’t want to go back to jail for trespassing or something,” says King, who entered a yearlong residential program at Springs Rescue Mission in hopes of cleaning up his life, finding a job and getting an apartment.

(See The Gazette's January project on homelessness here.)

That’s what supporters of the ordinance hoped it would do: provide incentive for the 600 or so people who were camping in tent cities near downtown and on the west side to get off the streets and work toward self-sufficiency. And a lot of on-the-road-to-success stories like King’s have emerged since the ordinance passed in early February and went into effect March 11.

But as many as 150 people — and possibly more — continue to camp on public property.

Some are hard-core homeless who suffer from mental illnesses and/or substance abuse problems and haven’t been willing or able to stick with a program. Some swear they’d be off the streets if they could just land a job. Others have physical maladies and are waiting for their Social Security or other benefits to kick in.

Overall, though, those who have been trying to help the homeless — even some who spoke against the ordinance or wanted its passage delayed — believe the no-camping law has achieved a lot of good.

“Our creeks aren’t a dumping ground anymore, and we got rid of some trash and sanitation issues,” says Steve Saint, director of the Pikes Peak Justice & Peace Commission, who argued for a delay in the vote to give homeless advocates more time to come up with adequate shelter options. “And a lot of people sufficiently moved into programs, jobs and getting their own place.”

Still, the ordinance isn’t without its critics, including City Councilman Tom Gallagher, who cast the only “no” vote in February.

“The ordinance uses a sledgehammer to drive a thumbtack, says Gallagher, who was once homeless. “That was my opposition to it.”

A goal ‘exceeded’

Some ordinance supporters thought a sledgehammer was just what was needed to eradicate the tent cities. At best, the camps were an eyesore, critics said; at worst, they were a sanitation and environmental nightmare, and a breeding ground for crime. West-side merchants said the campers were harassing their customers and defiling their property.

But the ordinance wasn’t universally received. Opponents questioned whether there would be enough beds for all the campers, and said it would only serve to make homelessness a crime.

As the Colorado Springs City Council mulled over the ordinance, Bob Holmes was working behind the scenes to craft a program to increase the number of beds for campers.

Holmes, executive director of Homeward Pikes Peak, secured a $100,000 grant from the El Pomar Foundation to start the program, contingent on passage of the ordinance. Then, with the help of two key volunteers, Karl and Teresa McLaughlin, he began moving campers into the Express Inn at Cimarron and Eighth streets. El Pomar provided an additional $50,000 grant, and the city kicked in $50,000 in federal money. The program eventually took over the Aztec Motel on East Platte Avenue.

As of Sept. 1, the Colorado Springs Police Department’s three-man Homeless Outreach Team and Holmes’ program had made contact with 585 campers, and gotten 415 into a program or onto a bus with a guaranteed contact at the other end.

“My goal was to help two-thirds of the tent campers, and we have exceeded that goal,” Holmes says.

Teresa McLaughlin, who is now on the Homeward Pikes Peak payroll, says 139 of the campers got jobs, although a few were laid off because of economic problems. Ninety of those who were in the program were able to move into their own apartments; 85 more are in government-subsidized housing, Holmes said.

Could the same results have been achieved without the ordinance?

“No — absolutely not,” Holmes says. “There would be no motivation to move, and well-intentioned people in the community would still be hauling plates of lasagna and tents and stoves down to the creek beds.”  

And, despite some opponents’ fears, the ordinance hasn’t been enforced with a heavy hand — just as Police Chief Richard Myers promised when City Council was debating it. The HOT officers haven’t issued any tickets since enforcement of the ordinance began. Instead, they say, they’ve used it as a tool to either get the campers into a program or on a bus to reunite with family or  enter a program at their destination.

“I think it’s done exactly what we thought it was going to do with that therapeutic nudge,” says M.J. Thomson, one of the HOT officers. “It gave those stubborn ones who wanted to drink and take drugs and didn’t want to better themselves — it forced them to better themselves. It’s worked out perfectly.”

That velvet-glove approach has made the ordinance more palatable to Loring Wirbel, co-chairman of the Colorado Springs chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and a board member of the Pikes Peak Justice & Peace Commission. It’s why the ACLU decided to skip over the Colorado Springs ordinance and file suit against a similar law in Boulder, where enforcement has been more heavy-handed, he said.

“In an ideal world, it would probably be better to not have an ordinance at all, but when you have one in place, the way you choose to enforce it makes all the difference in the world,” he said. “You’ll notice the ACLU made a conscious decision to litigate in Boulder first, because the police have been horrendously hard-core about enforcement, and they’re pretty impressed with the way the Colorado Springs police went out of their way to find alternative solutions.”

 

Camping hasn’t ended

Although the ordinance is credited with getting nearly 500 people out of the camps, it hasn’t eradicated homeless camping. The HOT officers estimate that 150 to 175 people are camping, albeit a lot more discreetly than the months before the ordinance passed. Bill Lawson, who pays for a storage unit where homeless campers can stash their belongings, thinks the number is much higher, and says people will notice once the leaves fall.

“We’ll see just as many as before, and if we don’t, I’ll say I was wrong,” he says.

Regardless of the number, Holmes and the HOT officers say many of the remaining campers are the hardest of the hard-core: mentally ill or substance abusers — or both. Some were kicked out of Holmes’ housing program because they couldn’t follow the rules. These are the people that Holmes intends to reach in “Phase 2” of his program, once the first phase ends Oct. 15. He said he’s lined up a mental health worker to accompany the HOT officers twice a week for a year.

“That’s really my main goal — to reach out to people who didn’t make it the first time,” says Holmes.

One camper, however, says it’s not just about getting help for mental health and drug and alcohol problems. It’s about jobs.

“I’ve been looking for work, but it’s hard to find ’em,” says a lanky 31-year-old landscaper and construction worker, who asked not to be identified because he’s still camping.

And, unlike “Tramp” King, some people are just not ready to get off the streets and do what it takes to become self-sufficient.

“Some of these guys will never be ready,” says 55-year-old Dave Banes, an Aztec resident who has physical disabilities from several accidents and is waiting for his Social Security benefits to kick in. “They don’t want to go through the motions or jump through the hoops to get to the other side.”

Many of them say bluntly that the ordinance “sucks,” and won’t be enough to keep them off the streets if they have nowhere to stay.

“Everybody’s hanging on pins and needles,” Banes says. “If nothing happens by Oct. 15, we’re out. We’ll just be back out (camping), playing hide and seek.”

The former campers might not be able to stay at the Aztec; Holmes is slowly shifting the clientele to small families with young children. But he said he’s working with other agencies to find housing for them.

“No one will be put out on the street,” Holmes said Friday.

For their part, the HOT officers have “a little bit of concern” about Holmes’ initial program ending, but they don’t intend to move to a hard-line approach in enforcing the no-camping ordinance, Thomson said. However, he added, the team might be more inclined to take campers to jail when the weather turns brutally cold, to prevent them from freezing to death or losing limbs to frostbite.

“Looking at the cost of a human life compared to jail, maybe we’ll do it,” he says. “We can’t allow that to happen anymore. If we have to write a ticket to keep someone from freezing to death, we’ll do it.”

It’s another potential use of the ordinance to give campers a “nudge,” but even supporters of the ordinance agree with opponents that the law does little in the way of offering a long-term solution to homelessness.

“A long-term solution is dependent upon funding, period,” Holmes says. “And until the citizens of Colorado Springs decide to step up and fund these programs, nothing’s going to happen. Foundations and churches can’t carry the entire burden, and it’s being pushed off by city government onto these agencies. So when we talk about some type of sustainable funding, we’ll be talking about some kind of sustainable solutions.”

 

HOW WE GOT HERE

The roots of the no-camping ordinance go back to an October 2008 cleanup of homeless camps conducted under city auspices. During the sweep, eyewitnesses said, cleanup crews and police rifled through the campers’ belongings and tossed them, and there were allegations it happened with some regularity during the routine sweeps. One group threatened a lawsuit, and the cleanups were halted until new protocols could be developed.

About that time, the city attorney’s office was advising police not to enforce an existing law that prohibited overnight camping in public parks, recommending instead that the laws be updated. The decision was largely seen as the green light that lured homeless campers from discreet hangouts in farflung places and into plain view on public property closer to the downtown soup kitchen and social service agencies.

By December 2009, an estimated 600 people had set up neighborhoods of tents, mostly near downtown and on the west side. Complaints started pouring in about the campers trashing the areas around their tents, urinating and defecating in adjacent creeks, setting bonfires, harassing shoppers near the west side Safeway and making it unsafe to walk the trails and use the parks downtown. Good samaritan residents were delivering food, bottled water, firewood and other supplies to the camps by the pick-up truck load.

Against this backdrop, an ordinance was drawn up to ban camping on public property. Despite a parade of speakers who said it was unconstitutional and inhumane, and questioned whether enough shelter was available, the council passed the ordinance Feb. 9 on an 8-1 vote.

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