Updated: November 29, 2009 at 12:00 am
Ray, a 53-year-old unemployed mason with few prospects, recently finished installing a cardboard floor in the tepee he put up on the banks of Fountain Creek, where he’s resolved to spend the winter.
For a squatter who could be evicted at any moment, it’s a relatively permanent and very visible dwelling. But as anyone who has driven north on Interstate 25 between Motor City and Cimarron Street recently has seen, Ray isn’t alone.
The tents, tarps and campfires that once sprinkled the banks of Fountain Creek have grown into colorful villages in the past year; the trees shedding their leaves uncloaked the city’s growing homeless population to commuters and families in America the Beautiful Park.
The reasons for the dense clusters of tents are, according to advocates and the homeless, a sort of a perfect storm of conditions: relaxed police and city policy on the camps; the economic slump; a single shelter in the city; increases in drug and alcohol abuse; and family issues putting more and more teens and young adults on the streets.
“There are more homeless in the city than ever before,” said Robert Moran, leader of The Street Church, a nonprofit outreach organization. “We also have more people who are homeless for the very first time, which is something in itself. We’ll have more people out this winter that have never been out before.”
In the tent communities that have sprouted, it is clear that only those who want to do so have to bear the winter alone.
“Most of them have formed groups,” said Colorado Springs police officer Brett Iverson, a member of the department’s Homeless Outreach Team. “In the past, you’d find them scattered out, but now you’re seeing more larger groups looking out for each other.”
Ray gave his camp mate Dave a tent when the tepee was finished. He is helping a man just released from jail and his girlfriend get established on the banks. Last Wednesday, Ray joined his neighbor Ron and Ron’s wife selling flowers, a gig Ron’s wife secured for the group, vouching for Ray’s character.
Tuesday afternoon, Anthony, a 29-year-old living under a bridge near the underpass leading to the 8th Street Wal-Mart, eagerly handed over a tub of mini-cinnamon rolls and a Diet Coke to a drunk passerby who said he needed billions of dollars to get some chocolate milk.
Amid the general camaraderie there is a loose organization, Iverson said. The “fighters,” rabble rousers who fight for money, camp together; the older, hardened guys who keep to themselves stay in the same area; the young, first-time homeless run together and “think life is grand and they’re on this camping trip,” Iverson said.
Families with children are not generally seen here but rather find refuge at the New Hope Center, Salvation Army’s shelter that doesn’t allow drunks or drug addicts in.
“There is a hierarchy in each different group. There is one person who runs the show and makes sure that order is kept,” Iverson said.
One young drug addict recently came to Ray’s camp looking for needles.
“I just said, ‘Keep on trucking, buddy. We don’t have no needles around here,’” Ray said.
Ray’s camp is one of the cleanest along the creek, for which he has been commended by Iverson and other police officers. He keeps leaves raked, pots clean and trash at bay.
“This is the worst it has ever looked,” he said Tuesday. “But it is organized.”
Ron’s camp 30 yards away was similar, with firewood stacked in neat piles and no litter in sight.
Anthony’s camp down the creek was messier, a disheveled state he blamed on someone he let stay there.
Piles of trash bags dot the Fountain Creek footpath waiting for collection by Iverson and his team. The police Homeless Outreach Team is a dramatic shift from police policy on the camps a year ago. In what amounted to a public relations blunder for the city, police aided the citizen group Keep Colorado Springs Beautiful in clean-up sweeps that the homeless claimed destroyed their property, violated their rights and led to accusations that veterans had lost valuable documents.
The cleanups now suspended, the outreach team encourages campers to keep their areas clean and to use the services available to them, in hopes of getting them off the streets.
Iverson and Moran say word has spread that the sweeps are gone and people can camp on public land without fear of being rousted.
“People are not as afraid to be seen, I guess,” Moran said.
The policy shift, which may soon be reversed if the City Council goes ahead with a proposed ban on camping on public land, along with the variety of help and handouts available in Colorado Springs, has some wondering if the city is getting a reputation as a sort of Mecca for the homeless, a notion Moran dismisses.
“I don’t think people are coming here to eat at the Marion House (soup kitchen),” Moran said.
Certainly, Ray and his neighbor Ron represent a growing number of campers who are there because of unemployment, rather than alcoholism, drug abuse or family problems.
“None of us really want to be here,” Ray said. “I’m hoping (construction) will pick back up, hopefully in the spring.”