Countless homeless people across Colorado Springs have two weeks to pick up stakes and move after the City Council gave final approval Tuesday to a crackdown on creekside camping.
The deadline comes after the council reaffirmed its decision last month to ban camping within 100 feet of city waterways and concrete drainage canals. The vote, by a 6-2 margin, capped months of debate on how to improve local streams and creeks, amid concerns that such a ban would unfairly target homeless people.
The new ordinance takes effect July 23 — adding another layer of legal peril for homeless people in a city that already bans camping on public property.
Enforcement in creekside areas is expected to be far tougher than under past ordinances, because police will not ensure that shelter beds are available before issuing a summons, city officials say.
Police will issue written warnings for a person’s first infraction, said Lt. Mike Lux, who oversees the department’s Homeless Outreach Team. And anyone refusing to leave after 24 hours will be ticketed, he said.
Violators of the new ordinance could face up to $2,500 in fines and 180 days in jail.
Councilmen Tom Strand and Merv Bennett proposed the ban to keep people from being swept away by flash floods, and to cut high levels of E. coli in Fountain and Monument creeks. The bacteria in those creeks have drawn the ire of state and federal water regulators.
“This is not the solution or answer” to addressing homelessness, Strand said. “It is a step in the right direction.”
But opponents, including homeless and civil rights advocates, called the measure misguided, given that no proof exists that homeless campers are the cause of those elevated bacteria readings. And they called it a distraction from more productive means to address homelessness, such as increasing the city’s affordable housing.
Holding onto a pet terrier named Hope while debating whether to camp alongside Fountain Creek, Carla Edmonds called the newly approved ban “scary.”
Homeless for about six months after losing her job in Boulder, Edmonds moved to Colorado Springs with her husband in search of affordable housing. They never found it.
Instead, they routinely camp beside creeks, where they usually can avoid police seeking to enforce the city’s ban on camping on public property.
“It just seems like it’s the only place where you can camp. It seems like the only place where you can hide,” Edmonds said. “But also, I can sit here and pretend I’m camping and not homeless.”
She said she understands concerns about people defecating in the creek. She has seen it happen. But she also questioned where she’d go once the ban takes effect.
Beds for women at the nearby Springs Rescue Mission can be scarce, she said, and she wants to avoid putting her dog in a kennel there, where it would bark all night.
“It’s scary. They’re going to be on us worse,” Edmonds said of the police.
City officials said Tuesday they plan to create several new services for people who are homeless, including 300 new shelter beds where admission would be based on behavior, not sobriety.
Before the council’s vote, Mayor John Suthers said the city is in talks with two nonprofits — Springs Rescue Mission and the Salvation Army — for each to add 150 such beds later this year, possibly by November.
The city also is working on establishing a “homeless court” at the municipal courthouse. The concept typically allows some people to receive alternative sentences and help addressing the underlying issues that led to their arrest or citation.
Suthers’ chief of staff, Jeff Greene, said the city also will seek to increase penalties for littering and other crimes associated with contamination of the city’s waterways, so they match those of the new creekside camping ordinance.
In the meantime, as many as 18 officers, two sergeants and a lieutenant can enforce the new law, after having been specially trained on how to deal with homeless individuals, Lux said.
They include the department’s Homeless Outreach Team, its Downtown Area Response Team and two extra officers in each of the city’s four subdivisions.
Lux said no new enforcement campaign is planned with passage of the new ordinance.
“I don’t see a big push coming,” Lux said. “We address it every single day.”
The ordinance garnered another endorsement Tuesday – this time, from the Council of Neighbors and Organizations.
And Greene successfully persuaded several council members to deny Councilman David Geislinger’s last-second bid to delay enforcement of the ordinance until Aug. 10. That proposal came after two church leaders voiced concerns that nonprofits and volunteers needed more time to help campers move.
“This is about putting a stake in the ground and moving forward,” Greene said.
Councilwoman Yolanda Avila chastised Geislinger for still supporting the ordinance, calling on him to “just step up and take a stand for what’s right.”
She was joined by Councilman Bill Murray in casting the lone dissenting votes and criticizing the city for blaming homeless campers for the creek’s high E. coli levels.
“It’s all put on the shoulders of persons experiencing homelessness,” Avila said. “People feel that if we take care of that, it’ll all go away.”
Councilman Andy Pico, an outspoken advocate of the ban, was not present for the vote.
With the ban on the books, Edmonds said she isn’t sure what she’ll do in two weeks.
She may finally seek shelter at the Springs Rescue Mission, and try putting her dog in a kennel for the night.
If it doesn’t go well, though, Edmonds said she’ll be back outside camping. After all, she can’t part with her pet, Hope.
“There’s like nowhere we can go,” she said. “There’s nothing we can do.”
“There’s like nowhere we can go. There’s nothing we can do.” Karla Edmonds, homeless woman on the new creekside camping ban in Colorado Springs
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been corrected to reflect the proper spelling of Carla Edmonds' name.