March 11, 2014 Updated: March 11, 2014 at 9:26 pm
Four years after police began enforcing a camping ban on public property, homeless campsites still pepper parts of Colorado Springs, and officers continue to oversee a steady drumbeat of cleanups across the city.
On Tuesday morning, nearly two dozen people waited with trash bags while a team of police officers awoke four people sleeping beside Monument Creek - their camp located in the shadow of a massive rooftop mural touting the U.S. Olympic Committee.
While city officials embark on a much-hyped initiative to combat homelessness via a day center, expanded emergency shelter beds and more outreach and affordable housing options, the Colorado Springs Police Department's Homeless Outreach Team expects to continue its work much as it has in the past, the officers said.
Their cleanup work almost never results in tickets. Since 2010, officers have issued five citations for violating the camping ban ordinance - the first coming during the Occupy Colorado Springs movement in 2011, and the last three happening in January, said Brett Iverson, an officer on the outreach team. The tickets came as a last resort, Iverson said, and almost always after years of repeated offers of assistance.
"That's our bottom line: A lot of these guys refused the help," Iverson said.
While camping remains fairly common, it is not nearly as prevalent as in 2010, when camps exploded along the creeks downtown and on the city's west side. At the time the camping ban was approved by the City Council, an estimated 300-500 people were living in the camps.
Nowadays, most of the team's time is spent trying to help people find housing, arranging family reunions and scheduling medical appointments. That work should continue at a slightly greater clip after a fourth officer joined the team earlier this year.
Once a month - sometimes more - the officers also help the local chapter of Keep Colorado Springs Beautiful clean campsites across downtown and west Colorado Springs.
"You have the hard-core ones that are still out here," Iverson said. "Or even new people who just move through... but people have gotten better at hiding because they know it's illegal.
"And so that's where we have to kind of go out and find them."
The campsite Iverson helped clean Tuesday near Interstate 25 was unusual because it was so visible.
Rustled awake, a woman came out of a blue tent around 8:45 a.m. holding a plastic crate with pink clothes and white tennis shoes. A few feet upstream, a woman and a man emerged from another tent, as did another man at a campsite farther north.
Within 10 minutes, all of them were gone - taking some clothes, but leaving most of their belongings and tents behind.
At least eight people appeared to be camping there Friday, when officers posted orange signs warning people of the impending cleanup - a step conducted 72 hours before each cleanup, Iverson said. As the stragglers left, one officer tried referring the couple to the Springs Rescue Mission's Resource Advocate Program. They also urged the woman holding a crate to seek medical help, because she appeared ill.
About an hour later, almost everything was gone.
Volunteers combed through the camps, stuffing tents into black trash bags, along with sleeping bags and clothes. They rounded up a couple of empty cans of Evil Eye malt liquor, bicycle tires, stuffed animals and countless other belongings and pieces of trash.
When one volunteer found a birth certificate for Kyleigh Meredith Hayes, a 24-year-old woman born in Moscow, Russia, they passed it to Dan McCormack, an officer with the homeless team.
The unit takes any items that may be vital to missing campers - driver's licences or passports, for instance - and keeps them for people to pick up later.
They threw away the rest - a nod to the sanitation issues posed by trying to clean the sleeping bags and tents left behind, McCormack said.
Five hours after starting, the crews filled a 30-cubic-yard roll-away dumpster, said Dee Cunningham, the executive director of Keep Colorado Springs Beautiful. They had also visited campsites along West Colorado Avenue between 21st Street and 26th Street, along with a site near Cimarron Street and Interstate 25.
"They've been given 72 hours to know this is going to happen, so it's not like it's been sprung on them," said Martin Toetz, while cleaning a campsite. "Sometimes it's difficult when you take a perfectly good tent that somebody left behind and you fold it up and throw it away, but that's the rules."
The next cleanup is scheduled for March 25.