Bicycle parts, tents, sleeping bags, food wrappers, shopping carts, blankets and a plush sofa seat all sat crumpled Tuesday in what had been Colorado Springs’ largest homeless encampment in years.
The people who owned these things had scattered as police and skid loaders descended to empty the so-called “Quarry.”
At dawn, heavy equipment manned by city employees plowed through the roughly 10-acre encampment, removing thousands of pounds of abandoned belongings and loading it all into dumpsters purchased for about $3,000. A drone operator and police officers stood watch, many holding clipboards to write trespassing citations, but no tickets were issued.
At one point, the sprawling tent city had an estimated 100 to 150 people trespassing on private property. They lived in tents and tarp-covered structures a short walk from Police Department headquarters.
But Tuesday, a couple of campfires smoldered as several stragglers gathered what they could and fled.
“I just hope they don’t come back,” said Mark Davis, a city code enforcement supervisor. “That’s the frustrating thing. It’s just a shell game, and they come back.”
The operation was one more chapter in a cat-and-mouse routine between people camping illegally and police. Over and over, officers roust the campers from one encampment, then repeat the cycle wherever those campers go next. Often, it’s only a few hundred yards away.
This time, the ouster came a day after Springs Rescue Mission opened a new building with 150 extra beds, bringing its nightly shelter capacity to at least 450 people, plus room for pets. All of those spots are “low-barrier,” meaning admission is based on behavior, not sobriety.
And it came about six weeks after the Salvation Army made 120 beds low-barrier as well at its nearby R.J. Montgomery shelter.
Space for scores of people has gone unused lately. And that’s where homeless campers need to go, said city and police officials.
“The fact is people are dying outside. People’s things are getting stolen outside. People are getting frostbite outside,” said Andrew Phelps, the city’s homelessness prevention and response coordinator. “So I think it’s just a false narrative that shelters aren’t safe. And it’s a narrative that’s actually damaging to the people who are surviving outside right now. We need to be encouraging people to seek shelter.”
No one contacted by The Gazette on Tuesday seemed willing to do that.
Brad Rupp, 44, carried his cot and dragged a couple of shopping carts to nearby railroad tracks, the only place he could find safe from skid loaders. He didn’t have long. The air was thick with dust kicked up by the heavy equipment emptying the Quarry nearby.
“It sucks. We knew we had to get out of here. But I didn’t have a car to get all this s--- ,” Rupp said. “I didn’t know where I was going to go.”
With deadline day here, he still had no idea. He wasn’t alone.
Many camp residents said they prefer the freedom of living outside and vowed to keep doing it. Jerima King, a homeless advocate, argued that the Quarry demonstrated a need for a city-sanctioned encampment, an idea that city officials vehemently oppose.
Sharron Fiedler-Wood, another homeless advocate, said nothing will change until the campers can find their own apartments.
“That’s the only way any of this will be solved, if we get a lot more affordable housing,” she said.
A few days after Thanksgiving, police told campers they planned to remove the camp. The officers returned a week ago with several nonprofits and service providers, plus coffee and doughnuts, to encourage people to seek services that could help them get into shelters and off the streets.
“We’ve been more than accommodating,” said police Lt. Mike Lux, head of the Homeless Outreach Team.
Tuesday, officers cleared most of the land, while leaving alone one area whose ownership has been in question.
“Who would want to live like this?” Lux asked. “I just don’t understand it. It’s just not dignified.”
On that remaining parcel, at least 40 tents and tarp-covered structures still stood. More campers were heading there, too.
Terry Carrico, 68, stepped out of his tent there and onto a perch overlooking the rest of the Quarry. The sound of skid loaders and dump trucks echoed.
He said he didn’t know where he’d go, but it surely wouldn’t be a shelter.
“Right now,” he said, “we’re going to run out of places.”