Point: Kristy Milligan
It is said that necessity is the mother of all invention, and the city of Colorado Springs now has a tidy feature on their app that allows community members to click a button to report a homeless camp. Should people use it? Apparently, they already do.
What they might not know is what happens when they do.
That click initiates a visit from the CSPD Homeless Outreach Team, which posts the area with “tags” warning people to vacate the premises. Many people pack up their belongings and relocate their camp. Some stay and receive a camping ticket.
The city knows that very few campers avail themselves of shelter beds, for reasons as diverse as the people but which — almost to the person — boil down to trauma and fear.
If the pandemic has taught us nothing, it’s how dangerously close we are to the economic edge, and how escalating housing prices affect us all. Must we vilify people experiencing homelessness to such an extent that we can’t understand the impulse to resist shelters? Never mind that documented COVID-19 cases among people experiencing homelessness in the city are on the rise. Never mind that the CDC has advised against camp displacements. You failed at capitalism, get thee to the shelter.
When people don’t head directly to the shelter, the cost of confrontation with CSPD and cleanup is more than their sense of dignity. Keep Colorado Springs Beautiful, the primary contractor for City camp cleanups, received over $179,000 in 2017 in fee-for-service. How many of those camps were secondary or tertiary sites, cleaned up because the first site was “tagged”? We can only guess.
Even if no cleanup is required, two officers respond to each report, and the lowest pay rate for CSPD is $27.23 an hour. Each confrontation, then, conservatively costs around $100 (an hour spent on the initial complaint and an hour spent following up), and if a ticket is issued and everything goes perfectly, it’s another $100 in municipal court time.
If things go less than perfectly, it’s $89 a night in jail. I don’t know how many reports of camps come in each year, but I’m told it’s the most-often used feature in the app. One a day would be, conservatively, $36,500 a year in hard costs responding to camps.
Wouldn’t this money be better spent creating housing opportunities for people? When last I checked, the list of people experiencing homelessness who desperately want to find housing, and not just a shelter bed, was over 700. Until we can do something other than sink $5M into shelter beds, municipal efforts to criminalize homelessness fall flat.
We can agree that most camps are unsightly. Westside CARES initiated a cleanup program at the request of our neighbors experiencing homelessness because they care deeply about our community and the impacts of camping. We should be outraged not because we have to see the camps, but because of the underlying conditions that necessitate camping in the first place and the misallocation of resources that occurs when we — as a city — accept that we can effectively police our way out of poverty.
Yes, we should do something about it. We should be screaming in the streets with compassion for our brothers and sisters. We should demand more affordable housing, more eviction prevention programs, more residential rehab facilities, more permanent supportive housing. The very things that evidence supports as effective solutions to the problem of poverty and not just the manifestations of it.
But yeah, if you want to, go ahead and click a button on an app. Just know what happens — and doesn’t — when you stop there.
Counterpoint: Bill Murray
BLUF (bottom line up front): The GoCOS app for your iPhone has added an illegal camping portion to its “popular requests” section. Community members can use their phones’ geolocation function, add a photo, and submit the information. This allows the public to help our law enforcement track and locate these encampments. It also helps City Neighborhood Services to clean up the illegal encampments. In 2020, they cleaned up over 1 million pounds of trash from these camps. Use www.helpcos.org to learn not only what the city is doing to help those in need, but also to learn how that can take an active role in helping people struggling in our community.
Do not engage! Confrontation is not what this is about. This is about reporting and recording. Once a year our community does a “point in time” recording of the homeless population size and demographics. The rest of the year we play whack-a-mole, searching for the camps and when they displace, trying to find them again.
Do you believe it is cruel and unusual punishment to enforce rules that stop homeless people from camping in public places? The answer is yes, according to the U.S. Supreme Court. The court has ruled, though, that only when there is “no place to go” for them. We now routinely have over 100 open beds per night at the Springs Rescue Mission to accommodate this population.
There is no silver bullet here. Reporting camps is not an attempt to solve homelessness but instead to resolve the issue of illegal camping in our city. The city should not, cannot, and will not allow camping on community property. Camping is time limited, geographically constrained and requires cleanup after use. None of these requirements are being met nor followed by the vast majority of the folks who are camping. (Note the 1 million pounds of trash collected in 2020.)
We ended up using city resources (your taxes) building out the rescue mission to accommodate the needs of the homeless community, only to learn a small minority of the homeless do not want to use the facility because it is too restrictive, and they cannot store their personal items nor pets. The mission then built facilities to take care of the personal items and pets. But there is nothing they can do about the restrictions, which are designed for the health and safety of the residents.
Throughout my time on the council, I have tried to be empathetic and sympathetic but above all be honest in my approach to the city’s problems. A law that is unenforceable, or not enforced is worse than useless. It encourages individuals to openly flout the law and its consequences. Laws are supposed to be designed to affect change, modify behavior, and add accountability. Our camping restrictions do this.
I got it. It is complicated. But personal responsibility and the overall camping population needs to help take ownership of the situation. Chasing everyone down to help resolve individual issues cannot be the solution. The Springs Rescue Mission was designed to be a one-stop shop for assistance. If you do not use it, we cannot help you. Our intended goal is to provide opportunities to help resolve issues, but we cannot provide this in a camp setting.
If we need to, we can go back to the court, and help clarify no camping laws. In the meantime, citizens should use the app to help us locate the camps so we can encourage all to use the facilities that we have provided and let us work toward housing solutions. We cannot do this in a vacuum, and we will need everyone to help, with resources and with patience.
Kristy Milligan is the CEO of Westside CARES, which, with the help of 400 volunteers, serves people experiencing poverty and homelessness on the west side of El Paso County. Bill Murray is serving his second term as an at-large council member for Colorado Springs.