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Colorado Springs nonprofit: Messy creekbeds a byproduct of generosity to homeless

November 14, 2015 Updated: November 16, 2015 at 5:45 am
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Trash is seen piled up along Fountain Creek in this 2013 photo. (Kent Nishimura, The Gazette)

Every month, Keep Colorado Springs Beautiful volunteers help clean 10 tons of trash from creekbeds across the city, said Dee Cunningham, the nonprofit's executive director.

She calls it a byproduct of generosity.

Her solution is to minimize handouts to the homeless.

On Thursday Cunningham asked a gathering of nonprofit leaders and homeless advocates across the city to give out fewer clothes and other items to the homeless as a means to reduce trash in waterways.

At her side was a representative from Colorado Springs Utilities, who framed the request as a means to improve water quality.

"If there's some way to minimize how much is given at one time ... we'll see an improvement," Cunningham said during the monthly Comprehensive Homeless Assistance Providers meeting.

She suggested nonprofits offer full exchanges of clothing and other items to homeless people who bring back what they previously received. Doing so, Cunningham said, would cut back on waste scattered across Fountain and Monument creeks.

The proposals garnered mixed reviews from nonprofit leaders.

At least one person at the CHAP meeting questioned whether the hordes of trash came not from nonprofits' donations, but from residents who leave bags of clothing and other belongings at homeless camps hoping they'll go to use.

Some people acknowledged filthy, abandoned campsites as a problem, but they questioned the wisdom of limiting services.

"I just have a hard time putting those two ideas together," said Michael Royal, executive director of Family Promise of Colorado Springs, who did not attend the CHAP meeting. "To assume that trash alongside creekbeds or camping areas is because nonprofits are just willy-nilly handing things out - that just feels like a bit of a stretch."

Joe Carlson, of the El Paso County Homeless Veterans Coalition, also questioned the request. He has helped organize the annual Stand Down, which gives backpacks, jeans, boots and other items to homeless military veterans girding for the winter.

He acknowledged that some people may abuse the system and take more clothes and goods than they need, but said many more rely on those items to survive.

"If someone is hungry, you feed them," said Carlson, who also wasn't at the meeting. "If they're cold, you give them a coat."

But some nonprofits appeared more open to Cunningham's suggestion.

"They both sound like good suggestions to me," said Larry Yonker, president and chief executive of Springs Rescue Mission, who had a staff member at the meeting.

Yonker said his organization tries to clean around its campus near Dorchester Park and Fountain Creek. Still, trash can be an issue there.

He said the planned creation of a 150-bed shelter and a homeless day center should help curtail that problem, in part because people would have a place to sleep besides tents.

In the meantime, the nonprofit is working on some "programmatic changes" beginning in January, said Stu Davis, a Springs Rescue Mission spokesman. The move is not a response to Cunningham's pitch, but rather to better align the nonprofit with national best practices, he said.

"What we know is just being completely open handed - in other words, fairly unlimited with what people can walk out of our store with - is not necessarily helpful long term to folks who are experiencing homelessness," Davis said.

The pitch comes after Keep Colorado Springs Beautiful joined the Greenway Collaborative, a group of organizations working to clean trails and waterways.

The partnership fits well with the nonprofit's nearly two-decade mission of organizing cleanups and community service projects and across the city, Cunningham said. One of its programs works with the Colorado Springs Police Department's Homeless Outreach Team to clean up campsites that are not allowed under city codes.

She began her presentation by stressing she is not "against the homeless," and touted her work housing the homeless population during her 19 years running Keep Colorado Springs Beautiful.

She said "99.9 percent" of homeless people who volunteer with her nonprofit as part of court-ordered community service "work harder than anybody" and "they really like coming out, working hard, feeling accomplished."

In making her pitch, she passed out pictures of littered campsites with bags clothing or trash strewn about.

"We want people to meet nature, where it looks like nature," Cunningham said.

Keeping the city and its creekbeds clean should be a priority, said Ann Steiner Lantz, Ecumenical Social Ministries' executive director, but so should empathy for people who are homeless, she added.

Lantz pointed out that there are few public dumpsters, recycling bins and bathrooms available across the city.

"I want us to be careful I how we approach these things because places like ESM are lifesaving for many of our folks," Lantz said.

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