When biking the Greenway Trail along the southern edge of downtown Colorado Springs, it’s easy to get lost in visions of what could be a natural treasure beside Monument/Fountain Creek.
You can, in your mind’s eye, see a future path jammed with bikers and walkers. A glistening rush of clean water safe for splashing and fishing. A tourist attraction for a tourist city.
Then, there’s a jolting return to the reality of 2020. You see mounds of trash. You see dozens of homeless women and men camping alongside the creek. You endure the stench.
I’ve pedaled the trail for years. The homeless camps are constantly closed by city workers and just as constantly formed at a new spot.
On a recent Saturday, I rode the trail with Pat Carlile, who has lived in Colorado Springs since 1995.
“We’ve got that beautiful creek and now it’s a blighted area,” Carlile says. “We’re trying to get people to come to this city, and it’s just disgusting and dangerous. I think the worst is what we’re doing to the water. It’s a sanitation problem.
“We’re missing the potential of a beautiful landmark in our city," Carlile said. "We’re ruining it when we ought to be improving it and making it part of the tourist industry.”
While riding on our Greenway Trail, we saw only a few fellow bikers. I, like Pat, felt baffled and depressed by what seems an insurmountable problem.
Or maybe it’s not.
Wednesday, I rode a dozen miles along Denver’s downtown trail beside Cherry Creek and the South Platte River. I saw several “No Camping” signs. I saw no signs of homelessness along the water. Denver refuses to allow homeless campers on its downtown trails.
Why don’t we?
The answer is complex, which is no surprise. Little in American life is as complicated as homelessness. How to explain homelessness? Start with the clash of poverty and affluence, add the conflict between the need for personal independence and the mounting problem of mental illness, and finish with the appeal of sleeping under the stars vs. sleeping in a cramped shelter. And that's just the start.
Andy Phelps serves as homelessness prevention and response coordinator for Colorado Springs. He brings a strong mix of toughness and tenderness to his task. He wants all residents of Colorado Springs to sleep in a bed at night, and he wants to protect our city’s beauty, too.
On Thursday, Phelps arose early to ride along Monument/Fountain Creek with the police department’s homeless access team. Starting at 5 a.m., he asked why our city's homeless slept in tents instead of a shelter and strongly encouraged them to seek shelter.
He watched officers write what he calls “quite a few tickets” for violating the city’s camping ban.
“They are choosing to not access housing, and I feel the community’s frustration,” Phelps says. “Why don’t some people access shelter beds? The reason is different for every person.”
The city is taking a more aggressive approach to the homeless, he says. City workers cleaned up 470 camps in 2018 and the number jumped to 847 in 2019. “We will clean up even more in 2020,” Phelps says. Law enforcement wrote 297 tickets for camping violations in 2018 and 804 in 2019. “We’re already on track to write even more in 2020,” he says.
The homeless challenge is being eased by an increase in “low barrier” beds at shelters. Phelps explains a low barrier bed means sobriety is not required for shelter. If a woman or man can lie down, go to sleep and behave in a safe manner, they are welcome at a low barrier shelter.
“I have no delusions that we are going to end homelessness,” Phelps says. “But we are getting more people in the shelters, and a vast majority of homeless are staying in shelters.”
Phelps must juggle his role as a social worker and a city employee. The social worker part of him wants the homeless given aid and comfort. The city worker wants the law to be enforced.
“It’s important as a community to continue to enforce the law,” he says. “We’re going to have anarchy in our community if we don’t enforce, and our natural environment will just get destroyed.”
Carlile has done more than just ride the Greenway Trail. He volunteered for 18 months at the Rescue Mission, where he spent hours talking with the homeless. He heard dozens of stories. He feels sympathy for those without a home.
“It’s so varied,” he says of those who dwell in tents beside Monument/Fountain Creek. “People down on their luck, people who lost their job, people who lost their house, people who have to come down there and live.”
He joins Phelps in hoping for a better tomorrow. Carlile is pleased to see more beds for those who have slept on dirt. He sees hope for a blighted area of Monument Creek. We could, with more beds and more enforcement, someday celebrate a clean, safe local treasure.
“We need,” Carlile says, “to get the homeless off the riverbank.”
Yes, we do.