More than 120 homeless people moved to creek beds, parks and motels under a cold drizzle Wednesday after a Colorado Springs nonprofit ordered the tent city on its property to disperse, citing pressure from city leaders.
The move came a day after Springs Rescue Mission received a citation for violating zoning ordinances by hosting the encampment - a cramped community of more than 50 tents.
Homeless advocates decried the move on the coldest day thus far of the season, and they questioned where people were expected to go. The city remains mired in a deep shortage of shelter space, and bans remain in place prohibiting camping on public property.
"They don't want us anywhere," said Michael Ehrlich, 55, who began camping at the tent city a week ago.
He and several other campers feared for their safety by losing strength in numbers.
Bonnie Teeter, 39, said the camp off West Las Vegas Street has a history of violence - she recalled fights involving people wielding bats - but it was safer than camping along a creek or under a bridge.
Theft also was a problem at the camp, she said, and her dentures had been stolen one morning. But she stressed that camping conditions and petty crime were always worse elsewhere.
"I don't know what's going to happen," said Teeter, who lived in the tent camp since June. "I don't foresee anything good."
Larry Yonker, the nonprofit's president and chief executive, said the tent city had grown unmanageable and had become a liability over the past six weeks.
Springs Rescue Mission had allowed the camp to exist while it constructed a 150-bed shelter directly to the west, which could expand to house 243 people during cold-weather months.
Those beds were originally slated to open Nov. 1, but only 52 will be ready before Nov. 10 and they will be reserved for women.
The nonprofit also is building a day center, apartments and other services that will cost nearly $28 million to complete. But that construction won't finish until 2018.
Mayor John Suthers said Tuesday that the camp had "gotten out of hand" despite the fact city officials allowed it as recently as late September.
Colorado Springs police were called to the tent city 28 times over the past three weeks, a police spokesman said, and many of those calls involved assaults.
Yonker said the cleanup marked a "devastating day."
"The more we were managing something, the more it looked like we were intentional about this as a solution for the community, and this is not," Yonker said. "We've grieved. This is probably one of the worst days of my life. And this week has been a tough week."
Few other shelter options existed.
No other nonprofits were capable of opening shelters to house all of the people at the tent city, said Aimee Cox, the city's community development manager.
"We have been really focused on creating the long-term plan so we can get out of this every year crisis response," Cox said.
Salvation Army's 222-bed shelter off Sierra Madre Street was open, but every men's bed was full, and only about 15 beds were open for women and children, a receptionist said Wednesday evening. Some of those beds still needed mattresses that had yet to arrive from a manufacturer.
"There's nowhere legal for people to go," said Carrie Baatz of People's Access to Homes. "This chronic displacement really impairs these people's ability to get jobs and get out of the situations they're in.
"We're concerned about people dying," she said. "We are concerned about people being assaulted."
Some homeless campers - including a man on oxygen - moved a few hundred yards east to Dorchester Park. Anthony LaScala, 53, vowed to move onto U.S. Forest Service land after spending a few nights along Fountain Creek.
"I'm done with society," LaScala said, lamenting that he had too little time to pack his belongings.
The nonprofit's staff awoke residents Wednesday morning, saying they had to leave by 3 p.m.
"They should have gave us some forewarning," he said.
Another person living at the site, however, waved good riddance to the tent city, calling it "nasty."
"It was a fire hazard," said the man, who only gave a first name of James. "I don't want to die."
By 5:30 p.m., a few abandoned tents remained, along with a dozen people stacking cardboard boxes, clothing and cans of food in shopping carts.
Walking through the property appeared more difficult than ever. All around were piles of trash, pallets, clothing and even mattresses.
A cleaning crew will arrive in four or five days to clean up the mess left behind, said Travis Williams, the nonprofit's vice president of advancement.
No one refused to leave as of 5:30 p.m., said Lt. Jeff Jensen, who oversees the Colorado Springs Police Department's Homeless Outreach Team.
Lt. Howard Black, a Colorado Springs police spokesman, said he suspected no tickets would be written for camping on public property because of the city's lack of shelter beds.
Issuing tickets would be a mistake, said Mark Silverstein, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado.
"To charge someone with a violation of the camping ordinance when they don't have anywhere to go, I think, is cruel and unusual punishment," Silverstein said.
"It's making it a crime simply for someone to exist."
As dusk approached and temperatures began sliding to their forecast low of 38 degrees, Chris Henderson, 63, surveyed his belongings.
He had four shopping carts that held all his belongings, including clothes, bicycle parts, rice and canned carrots.
There, Henderson contemplated his next move.
"I don't know where else to go."