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Days are numbered for Colorado Springs homeless encampment

March 7, 2018 Updated: March 8, 2018 at 12:16 pm
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George Post, a homeless member who currently resides behind Rocky Top Resources, begins to break down his camp on Wednesday March 7, 2018 in Colorado Springs. Homeless in the area have been asked to leave by Friday morning at the latest. (Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette).

More than 75 tents ring the Rocky Top Resources mulch yard, forming a small suburb around the bustling landscaping supply company.

But like another homeless encampment here four years ago, its days appear numbered.

El Paso County sheriff's officials on Friday plan to oversee the dismantling of the encampment behind the East Las Vegas Street business.

The move comes amid a growing debate over whether sanctioned homeless encampments should be created in the city - an idea pushed by some homeless advocates and campers but strongly opposed by Mayor John Suthers.

It also marks the latest chapter in a cat-and-mouse routine of police and sheriff's deputies dismantling illegal homeless encampments, only to see those same campers pitch tents a few hundred yards away, unwilling or unable to check into a shelter.

Rocky Top's president, Fred Martin, recently signed the trespassing order allowing sheriff's deputies to commence the cleanup and ticket anyone who refuses to leave.

Still, Martin said he wished the campers didn't have to go, adding that "Christ calls us to have compassion on the poor."

"I'd like to have them here, but the zoning won't allow that at this point," Martin said.

It resembles a dispute four years ago, when county code enforcement officers told Martin to evict homeless campers on his property or seek a zoning variance.

Back then, eight to 14 people lived in crudely constructed plywood huts. All of them left, prompting Martin to wish "the county would have had a little more heart."

The latest encampment exploded in size several weeks ago. Scores of homeless campers moved to the property after their previous encampment along the Pikes Peak Greenway Trail behind Springs Rescue Mission was dismantled at the direction of Colorado Springs police.

George Post, a homeless member who currently resides behind Rocky Top Resources, takes a smoke break as he begins to pack up his camp items on Wednesday March 7, 2018 in Colorado Springs. Homeless in the area have been asked to leave by Friday morning at the latest. (Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette).  

Sheriff's Lt. Bill Huffor framed the latest Rocky Top cleanup differently - saying Martin had a change of heart after a mulch fire erupted at the business Saturday. Spontaneous combustion likely caused the blaze, though it remains under investigation, he said.

Huffor posted notices Wednesday that the cleanup would begin Friday morning.

Keep Colorado Springs Beautiful will conduct the cleanup. Martin must pay all of their costs - a tab that could be thousands of dollars, Huffor said.

Anthony LaScala, 54, said he and other campers felt like cattle being herded across Colorado Springs.

He was among the campers who migrated to Rocky Top's property about a month ago from the dismantled tent city behind Springs Rescue Mission. He doubted shelters had enough room to accommodate everyone. And he advocated for a city-sanctioned encampment to end the drumbeat of cleanups.

"When you have nowhere to go, where do you go?" LaScala asked.

Huffor said it's a question he doesn't need to consider.

"This community needs to figure it out," he said. "Law enforcement is going to fulfill our responsibility, but the community needs to help us on the back end."

Forty sleeping mats were available Tuesday night at the Salvation Army's Weber Street emergency warming shelter, which can hold 150 people. It has hit capacity several times during cold spells, however, as well as when another large encampment was cleaned up this year, said Capt. David Kauffman, the nonprofit's leader.

And 30 to 55 beds were available at the Springs Rescue Mission's campus, which can host about 300 people a night.

Fearing legal blowback, Colorado Springs police do not cite people for illegally camping on public property if no shelter beds are available. The Sheriff's Office, however, "doesn't operate under that policy," Huffor said.

Trig Bundgaard of the nonprofit Blackbird Outreach criticized the city and county's handling of the encampment as "dirty."

Such cleanups only further destabilize the lives of homeless campers, he said.

"All we want is a private land owner to say 'I'm going to allow camping,'" Bundgaard said. "And any time we make even a lite bit of headway, the city and county come in and undermine everything."

He said the Rocky Top campers tried to keep the encampment clean. Blackbird Outreach handed out more than 700 trash bags for the campers when they arrived in February, and many people used to keep their sites clean and to pick up rubbish left behind from previous campers.

On Wednesday, dozens of trash bags sat stuffed in neat piles along the Pikes Peak Greenway Trail.

George Post, 55, said he camped in this spot for a year - spending only the coldest nights at the Salvation Army's Weber Street shelter.

Sleeping outside, he said, helped him avoid illnesses at the shelters, while giving him a sense of freedom.

While taking down his tent Wednesday, Post flagged down a Colorado Springs police sergeant and lieutenant driving by on the Pikes Peak Greenway Trail. "Where can we go?" Post asked.

"Shelter's the best thing," the sergeant said.

The officers drove off and Post surveyed his camp - a tent, several tarps, a grill, four working bicycles, a dozen wheels and a handful of bike frames.

"I can't take all this to the shelter," Post said. "There's a lot of money here."

He scratched his forehead and puffed on his cigarette.

And with that, he made plans to find another camp spot near some train tracks a mile away.

Editor's note: This story has been edited to correctly reflect the location of the Springs Rescue Mission's beds.

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