No-camping ordinance causing some homeless to 'freak out'

February 10, 2010

Colorado Springs Police Officer Dan McCormack figured it was inevitable: If City Council approved a no-camping ordinance, he’d soon hear from irate residents wondering why the homeless camps around town hadn’t disappeared overnight, and he’d have to reassure anxious campers they weren’t in imminent danger of being evicted.

Sure enough, his hunch was right.

“I’ve already had two calls asking why the tents are still down there,” he said at a meeting Wednesday, the day after council voted 8-1 to ban camping on public land.

And several campers he encountered were in panic mode, even though he and his colleagues on the police department’s three-member Homeless Outreach Team have been telling them  the ordinance won’t be used to railroad anyone out of town.

“They’re all starting to freak out about the ordinance,” agreed Teresa McLaughlin,  who volunteers as a homeless outreach worker and was also at the meeting of social service providers and others working on homeless camping issues.

Because the ordinance won’t take effect for at least 24 days, McCormack said the emphasis now is on working with campers to get them into programs or find them other options for leaving homelessness behind. And even when the ordinance takes effect, punishment is not the goal, he said.

“We’re offering solutions, not just ultimatums,” McCormack told the group.

McLaughlin said five campers she’d worked with showed up at her door Wednesday panicking because they thought they’d have to leave immediately.

“I’m just trying to get them to understand it will be 20 to 25 days before it’s enforced, but to start enrolling in programs now because maybe by then, they can be in one,” said McLaughlin, who had urged the council to delay action on the ordinance.

McLaughlin worries there won’t be enough beds to house the campers, especially single men with no underlying issues.

“I’ve only found five programs that will help single men, and they’re usually for the ones who have mental health or substance abuse issues,” she said.

Lyn Harwell, director of programs for Springs Rescue Mission, noted that the nonprofit plans to expand capacity in its one-year residential New Life recovery program, and will send some participants to the camps to tell people about it.

Bob Holmes, executive director of Homeward Pikes Peak, also said this week that the El Pomar Foundation was providing a $100,000 for housing assistance, should the ordinance pass.

McCormack said the ordinance is starting to wake some campers up to the idea that they need to find help.
One hardcore camper, a convicted sex offender, said after Tuesday’s vote that he wasn’t causing problems and just wanted to be left alone to live outside. On Wednesday, after McCormack talked to him about a Denver program that would accept sex offenders, he reconsidered.

“You have to offer up choices to them: ‘Let’s talk and find solutions for you — but you have to be a partner in that,’” McCormack said.

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