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Year-old homeless settlement cleared from El Paso County business property

May 14, 2014 Updated: May 19, 2014 at 11:58 am
photo - Photo by Julia Moss, The Gazette
Photo by Julia Moss, The Gazette 

The complex stretched for 100 yards along Fountain Creek, composed of nearly a dozen crudely constructed plywood huts covered by tarps, wood or pieces of cloth.

Most had fire pits. One had a short dirt driveway.

All had to go.

El Paso County code enforcement officers told Fred Martin, owner of Rocky Top Resources, to evict campers and clean up a homeless camp he allowed on his property along Fountain Creek or seek a zoning variance. While he complied - hauling away at least four industrial waste bins of material from the site - Martin said the camp should have been allowed.

"I was hoping the county would have had a little more heart," he said.

The quandary highlights the many approaches to homelessness in the Pikes Peak region, be it Martin's heart, a $5 million Colorado Springs initiative or efforts to enforce existing rules, as beds for the homeless decrease, according to city officials.

During 2013, the city lost about 120 shelter beds for the homeless due to the downsizing or closure of a few homeless programs, most notably Homeward Pikes Peak's Aztec Motel, according to Aimee Cox, the city's senior economic vitality specialist.

The city has embarked on an initiative to repurpose $5 million (largely in federal grants) for more emergency shelter beds, a day center and outreach services. It also aims to increase affordable housing options beginning with a joint study between the city and El Paso County.

Martin had been helping the homeless long before Mayor Steve Bach announced his initiative.

The camp began about a year ago when Martin noticed a few tents on the outskirts of his property along Fountain Creek. Instead of calling the police, he allowed them to stay.

"I think it was a very appropriate thing to do since they didn't have a home," Martin said. " . I guess they've (the city) designated a couple million for them. That's exciting to see, but that takes a while to materialize."

He gave campers permission to use some supplies from his work site, which recycles wood while supplying landscaping materials. He allowed them to use portable toilets and electrical outlets on his grounds at 1755 E. Las Vegas St.

Eight to 14 people lived in shanties at any one time, including a few disabled military veterans and some people waiting for a means to travel to out-of-state relatives. Most people cycled in and out of the camp in three to six months.

"And then there were some that just felt most comfortable being there," Martin said.

For the most part, the campers behaved. He asked two people to leave - one for violence and another for not respecting other people's property, Martin said. A string of copper thefts from his business ended when the camps sprung up, he said, though a set of torches and some of his tools went missing from time to time, Martin said.

"I knew that probably would increase," Martin said. "To me, that was worth the cost."

All the while, the camps grew more complex. One person installed a wood-burning stove, while another erected a fence and used sod from his business to make a small yard.

It all violated county codes for residences on a commercially zoned property, as well as regulations barring campgrounds on certain types of property, said Dave Rose, a county spokesman.

The Colorado Springs Police Department's Homeless Outreach Team received complaints from people using a trail along Fountain Creek about the camp, and officers advised Martin to take it down, said Brett Iverson, a member of the team. Martin declined, so officers forwarded the matter to El Paso County, because Rocky Top is outside city limits, Iverson said.

A neighbor's complaint triggered the county's involvement in mid-April, Rose said.

Late last week, the ground had been leveled, and only a couple of trash bags and the remnants of a fire pit remained. The people were gone - Martin said he wasn't sure where they went.

"It was just really unfortunate that that had to happen," he said.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been corrected to clarify El Paso County's involvement in working with Rocky Top Resources on a timeframe to remove a homeless camp on its property.


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