You could pass by the camp at South 8th Street and Cimarron Avenue every day and not know it’s there.
But tucked away on the south bank of Fountain Creek, down a steep dirt and gravel path where you need to grab branches to let yourself down, is a little rag-tag village of tents and lean-tos.
It’s an odd collection of objects including a discarded Christmas tree and a makeshift covered bicycle port with wrought-iron sides.
Shortly after dawn, Ray was one of the few souls stirring in the camp as he tended to a percolator coffee pot over a small fire pit.
Ray doesn’t want to be photographed or named in this story. There’s an ex-wife out there whom he’d rather not know his whereabouts.
But he is willing to talk at length about his own situation and those around him.
A 56-year-old veteran with 22 years in the Army and two stints at Fort Carson, Ray doesn’t see himself as homeless so much as living out of doors by choice.
He’d rather be here. He has a military pension and says he’s self-sufficient.
He’s skeptical of media coverage of the homeless situation in Colorado Springs. Most reporters seem to be missing the real story.
“The biggest story you’ve got here is the outpouring of generosity” he said, gesturing to the boxes of clothing, blankets, potatoes, tomatoes and other items that would-be Samaritans have dropped off in recent weeks.
In fact, on this recent morning, half the tents in the camp were empty because someone had donated money to pay for rooms in a nearby motel.
Ray first pitched his tent here last spring. It was a nice clean spot along the creek. Back then there were only two other guys staying there.
Now there are at least a dozen tents. About 20 people live here on and off. Ray blames part of that on the generosity of others. More blankets and food make the camps grow bigger.
“They give too much,” he said. “It just encourages people not to take care of themselves.”
Some, like Ray, work day labor jobs. Others haven’t worked in months or years.
“The people down here are from every walk of life,” Ray observed. “You’ve got fall-down drunks. One guy lost his leg.”
“There are people here because of the recession…or the recession in their minds.”
Things have come to the point where Ray feels some responsibility for the camp and his neighbors.
“I stay here because I like to camp,” he said. “And if they’re drunk and passed out, they need to be drug back into their tents.”
On one end of the trail, someone has posted a city flier noting that the camp will be subject to a cleanup the next day.
Ray said he and another camper named Don are about the only two who take time to clean up the camp.
Don stops by and grabs a wooden pole, holds it to the fire and then uses the small flame on one end of the pole to light his cigarette.
Sanitation is haphazard, although most people have taken to using the restrooms at a nearby fast-food restaurant and convenience store.
At night, he likes to play chess if he can convince one of the other residents to play.
Ray has no long-term plans.
“This is a long-term plan,” he said, pointing to the coffee pot. “In an hour, I’ll have a good cup of coffee.”
A few minutes later, two mule deer wander up to the edge of the camp. Ray grabs some small green tomatoes and tosses them to the deer. They munch on them, then gingerly make their way along the bank, between the water and the tents.
“The wildlife is pretty comfortable with us,” Ray said. “The raccoons get a little pushy…They were here before we were.”
Other visitors are not as calm. One day, a group of kids on the other side of the creek started hurling rocks at the campers. Ray said it was all he could do to keep the others from crossing the creek and starting a full fledged brawl.
Ray expects the city probably will try to clear the camp out at some point.
He does give the Police Department credit for reaching out to the residents through the Homeless Outreach Teams. Relations with the cops have improved dramatically since then.
If Ray is self-sufficient, then fellow camp resident Dan (again, didn’t want to give his full name) is on the other end of the spectrum and the other end of the camp.
Dan got out of jail not long ago and is sleeping in a tent that a friend had pitched.
“They kicked me out of the jail, so I have to stay somewhere.”
He’s 45, and says he's mentally disabled. He claims not to remember how long he’s lived in the camp or where he stayed before this.
“I was just going from place to place.”
He won’t stay in any of the city’s shelters. “It’s degrading,” he said. He prefers living in a tent.
There’s not much to do at night, he said except stay under a blanket and try to keep warm.
Asked if there’s anything he needs, he replies, “a heater.”