Among the belongings Amber Jones and her 13-year-old daughter, Hazel Marie, dismantled from their canopied spot along Fountain Creek Wednesday was a Charlie Brown-style Christmas tree.
The long, thick stick secured by rocks twinkled with a strand of tinsel Jones found lying on the ground and a few ornaments, including a glittery silver cross and a wooden one with the words, “Bless Our Home.”
“He has been blessing our home,” Jones said, referring to God.
Over the holidays, people from churches brought food and propane tanks to the multitude of homeless people who set up tents along the Midland Trail, a paved bicycle and pedestrian route.
The donations came in handy, said Jones, who's been calling the area home since late summer.
“We’re not camping, we’re living,” she said, as she and her daughter dragged stuffed animals, clothes, food and cooking supplies out of their tent and packed their possessions into suitcases and wheeled carts.
The site, an “especially troubling area” for illegal homeless camps that’s overrun with copious amounts of trash, was the target of the city of Colorado Springs’ first large cleanup of the new year, said Andrew Phelps, Homelessness Prevention and Response coordinator.
Anything that wasn't removed was thrown in the garbage.
“We have illegal camping pop up community wide in Colorado Springs,” Phelps said, “and we continue to enforce cleanups every single day because it becomes very troublesome — it has a pretty severe environmental impact in our community, and particularly in our waterways.”
City ordinances ban camping on public property and near a public stream such as Fountain Creek, where many homeless encampments materialize. Disposing of waste in waterways is prohibited.
Because the number of homeless shelter beds in the city now tops 700 and is deemed to be adequate for the area’s homeless population, Colorado Springs Police legally can boot people out of the encampments, including during the pandemic.
Signs announcing Wednesday’s cleanup listed the violations for which people can receive misdemeanor tickets.
Richard Cordova throws his citations in the fire. He’s been homeless for four years and had worked at a junkyard but now repairs bikes to earn money.
“If I had somewhere else to go, I’d go there,” he said.
“All we’re doing is living,” said a man who goes by the name Indio.
“We’re not being a nuisance,” he said. “Sorry we’re an eyesore.”
With constant cleanups, people shuffle down the pathways and eventually return to the same spot.
“We move for a couple of days and come back,” Cordova said.
“They want to keep spending the same money on the same problem that they’ve had plenty of years to fix,” he said. “It’s like a little game.”
Police and advocates who help the homeless get on waiting lists for housing admit it’s a cycle they’d like to break.
The homeless are encouraged to use the shelter beds, Phelps said.
“Sleeping outside in the wintertime is not a safe choice,” he said.
The shelters smell bad, are noisy and have rules like no food can be brought in except for hard candy, water and Kool-Aid packets, Jones said.
“You have to eat all of your food before you go in there or throw it away, which gives me a sickening feeling,” she said.
Also, shelter users are patted down and searched before entering, the mats are dirty and there are not enough blankets, homeless people say. And the city’s two largest homeless shelters had outbreaks of COVID-19 in recent months.
A homeless man called Goose said he got kicked out of a local shelter because he took his cart of his belongings with him in the bathroom and argued with a worker about it.
Outside, however, it’s hard to find running water and toilets they can use, Cordova said.
Those two necessities, along with receptacles for trash, would help the homeless the most, he said. Having such areas monitored by security, like other areas of town, would curtail abuse of bathrooms and trash bins, Cordova said.
“People don’t want to live like this,” he said, sweeping his arms around the encampment.
Jones would like to see community events where the homeless could interact with the general public and form relationships.
Indio wants a designated area for the homeless to live and build a community. He believes that developing understanding between both sides — the housed and the unhoused — and listening to each other would lead to finding alternatives to camping.
Kellie McQueen, who lives on the streets with her husband, Frances, said she’d like the police’s Homeless Outreach Team, which enforces the city's ordinances, to leave homeless people who aren’t causing any trouble alone.
“They shouldn’t be bulldozing our homes during COVID,” she said. “They throw away our stuff when we’re not around and say it was abandoned.”
Like other segments of society, people who abuse the system by trashing their encampments ruin efforts for others who just want to survive as best they can, said Reginald Perdue.
“You show me love, I’ll show you love,” he said. “Even though we’re homeless, we’re still human.”