Colorado Springs outlaws camping on public land
words and photo by Will Vunderink, editor
In the top-left corner of one of the formal agenda items for Colorado Springs City Council’s meeting on February 9 sits an illustrated silhouette of the city’s modest skyline with Pikes Peak looming behind it. Text below the image shouts, “CITY OF COLORADO SPRINGS,” and below that, stylized script announces, “We Create Community.” Further down, two crude graphics accompany the “Strategic Goal(s) this item supports: City Services, Quality of Life.”
The subject of this agenda item reads, “Camping on Public Property Prohibited Ordinance.”
The potential irony of this document approaches the absurd. It will ultimately cause homeless citizens of Colorado Springs who currently live on public property to be driven out of their makeshift homes, yet broadcasts the city’s commitment to “community.” And many advocates for the homeless and concerned citizens have furiously opposed the ordinance, pouncing on it as an inhumane, irresponsible method of dealing with a complex and distressing problem—an example of cowardice and denial on the part of the Colorado Springs government. But if the ordinance is carried out in the manner it proposes, its effect could be much more humane than malevolent.
The new ordinance, which consists of an amendment to existing camping restrictions and the creation of a new section of the city code that outlaws camping on public property, defines “camping” as any instance of “sleeping or making preparations to sleep,” “occupying a shelter out-of-doors,” “the presence or use of a camp fire, camp stove or other heating source or cooking device,” and “keeping or storing personal property” on public land. The ordinance passed eight-to-one in City Council on February 9, and on February 23 a second reading passed by the same margin, officially putting it into effect.
Its authors justify it by pointing out that “the City of Colorado Springs is committed to ensuring” that the property it owns and manages for the benefit of its citizens doesn’t create “public health, safety and sanitation risks to the public or to the operation and maintenance of the public property.” Noting the recent “increase in unauthorized use of public parks and public properties for camping which has increased public health, safety and sanitation risks to the public,” they conclude that “this ordinance is necessary to preserve and protect the real property assets of the City.”
It is surprising that the goal of the ordinance is, on a fundamental level, to protect the property of the city rather than its citizens, and this certainly doesn’t help curb the negative public understanding of the ordinance as out-of-touch with basic humanitarian values. The legalistic, stern text of the ordinance itself certainly underscores this view of the issue. But notes on the ordinance from the city council formal agenda item state that “the preferred method of dealing with[…]violations would be to gain the cooperation of the individuals involved without relying upon the criminal justice system.”
The ordinance was created because some “recent legal decisions caused members of the City Attorney’s Office to contact the Colorado Springs Police Department and advise against enforcing trespassing violations on public property without updating municipal ordinances with more specificity.”
Colorado Springs Police Chief Richard Myers and Commander Kurt Pillard, who gave a presentation about the new ordinance at the city council meeting on February 9, point out that “in the not too distant past, the police response to the homeless plight was an enforcement approach, which tended to backlog the criminal justice system.” They realized after a time that a pileup of misdemeanor arrests wasn’t going to solve the homeless problem, which for several years entailed, per year, “approximately 3,600 calls for service involving the homeless population within a one mile radius of Cimarron and Colorado Interstate 25.”
The new operating procedure put forth for CSPD officers who encounter violators of the ordinance consists of providing a written “Courtesy Warning,” then a referral to a homeless service agency. If a violator remains in his or her location for more than forty-eight hours after receiving a warning, then—and only then—can he or she be issued a ticket. Prosecution of repeat violators will be deferred “if the [defendant] is able to provide proof that he/she has participated in one of the many resources available by referral.” In sum, “The focus is to provide assistance to those in need.” The CSPD also expects “to see environmental improvements (less trash and cleaner waterways), reduced fire hazard, reduced exposure of the homeless to potential disease and the availability of trails and parks for use by the entire community.” The ordinance’s impact will be weighed by city council in six months.
But Don Renfroe, a homeless man who has most recently been living in a camp by America the Beautiful Park, wedged between Cimarron Street and I-25 along Monument Creek, isn’t aware of any of these details. All he knows is that four days prior to the ordinance’s second reading in city council, police officers came by his camp and told him that he had two weeks “to do something else” or he would be ticketed.
At the support rally for Colorado Springs’ homeless on the steps of City Hall on Tuesday, February 23, Renfroe stood quietly with a companion on the sidewalk and held up a small sign declaring, “Homelessness Is Not a Crime.” Polite and soft-spoken, he looked pleased by the show of solidarity by CC students and community members. He eyed the group of supporters that had spilled onto the northbound lane of Nevada Avenue in front of him, waving signs and cheering when passing cars honked. Other drivers looked away or sped up when they saw the protesters.
Mr. Renfroe, who has been in Colorado Springs for about ten years, doesn’t know what he’ll do next. He said that he “got into some trouble a while back,” but didn’t elaborate, except to say that he got through it “debt-free” and also attended and graduated from the Home Builders Institute. His passion in the past few years has been writing music. He plays guitar, has written “about fourteen songs,” and wants “to start up an open mic somewhere.” When winter arrived a few months ago, he had to pawn his guitar.
Renfroe feels that he and the rest of Colorado Springs’ homeless community have “been slapped in the face” by the new ordinance. He is angry because supporters of the ordinance seem to have ignored the fact that homeless people, too, have “dreams, goals, pride, and dignity.”
For citizens concerned about the rights of the homeless, the promises and legal technicalities found in the new ordinance do not matter. For them, it’s a simple humanitarian issue.
The sense of denial on the part of the local government articulated by Renfroe likewise shocks Rita Ague, a Colorado Springs resident since 1972, certified legal assistant with considerable civil rights law experience, and vocal attendee of the rally on Tuesday. Raising concerns about police brutality, she called the ordinance “very frightening,” and recalled a time when Colorado was a “very giving, ‘let’s take care of each other’ place.” “I was there when the first soup kitchen in Colorado Springs opened its doors,” she said, in 1973 or ’74 in the basement of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church. She stated her philosophy regarding the homeless as, “If we humanize them, we won’t brutalize them.”
James Womack, a Colorado Springs resident for thirty-five years, has spoken against the ordinance at city council meetings and wants to see the city government provide shelters for the homeless in wintertime. “If they could just have restrooms, showers, and a little breakfast and dinner . . . ” he speculated. Womack is outraged that there are people in the Springs who have to shiver during the winter months while the government and most citizens turn a blind eye to the issue.
Ague noted the inadequacy of homeless shelters in Colorado Springs, giving the example of Andy, a homeless man whom she first met outside the Marion House soup kitchen in early February. When the cold became too much to bear earlier this month, Andy went to a motel called the Express Inn at Cimarron and 8th Street that offered shelter for the homeless. He ended up with bed bug bites all over his body, many of which became badly infected, and he eventually had to go to the emergency room for treatment. Ague’s point was that in some cases, the homeless are better off in “tent cities” than in shelters.
Indeed, there is a major issue raised by the ordinance’s approach to the problem of homelessness, by which the courts refrain from incriminating homeless violators of the ordinance if they have sought shelter or other resources. Simply, Colorado Springs has been unable to provide enough of these resources to serve its sizable homeless population.
The Ten-Year Blueprint to Serve Every Homeless Person in the Pikes Peak Region, compiled last February by a number of local agencies and coordinated by the Homeward Pikes Peak homeless advocacy organization, put Colorado Springs’s homeless population at just under 1,100 individuals, about 20 percent of whom have served in the military. The figure currently provided by the CSPD is approximately 1,250, though they noted that the “chronically homeless”—“those who live on the trails”—number about 250.
One of the reasons that the new ordinance has struck such a nerve is that it has become clear that Colorado Springs’ homeless shelters simply cannot hold this many people. The police promise to provide violators of the new ordinance with referral to homeless shelters and other resources, but this seems a bit less sympathetic when it becomes clear that there is not adequate shelter or when, as in Andy’s case, newfound shelter only causes more problems.
But with the new ordinance, more organizations are opening their doors to the homeless and setting up more beds. The presentation Commander Pillard gave at city council noted that the Black Pastors’ Union “has recruited six churches to open doors for homeless individuals,” and that the Colorado Springs Homeless Outreach Program and Empowerment (CS-HOPE) “is in the process of signing a long-term lease for a facility that will house between 300 and 450 individuals.” In addition, the El Pomar Foundation has provided a $100,000 grant for emergency housing, and the Boarding House—the new name for the Express Inn at Cimarron and 8th Street—may be able to take in up to 500 people.
Though it might seem surprising, not all homeless advocates are against the ordinance.
Dr. Robert Holmes, executive director of the Homeward Pikes Peak organization, thinks the ordinance will have an overwhelmingly positive effect not just on the city, but on its currently homeless citizens as well. His organization has been advocating for the homeless in Colorado Springs for the past seven years. In 2003, it created a Five-Year Blueprint to House Every Citizen of Colorado Springs. The goal of that blueprint was “for Colorado Springs to become a great place to get off the streets, but a bad place to lead a purposely homeless lifestyle.”
Toward the end of the document, the authors optimistically point out that “putting dollars into prevention is much less expensive than allowing people to fall into homeless[ness],” and “when a person or family is homeless, even chronically, it is less expensive to shelter them than to leave them on the streets.” The new Ten-Year Blueprint points out that “each homeless individual with a co-curring condition”—simultaneous substance abuse and mental health problems—“costs the community $54,000 per year in untreated medical, emergency room, police and fire/ambulance services[…]The cost of housing and treatment for these individuals ranges from $12,000-$18,000 per year—one-third the cost of homelessness and non-treatment” (emphasis in original).
Dr. Holmes is confident that the new ordinance will supplement his organization’s Ten-Year plan, by ridding the city of its “safety problem” and getting “people off the streets.” He notes that, despite the apparent severity of the problem, the number of homeless in Colorado Springs is about on par with other American cities of similar size. Additionally, he says, Colorado Springs has actually tried to do more about the situation than many other cities. When asked why he thought the ordinance passed so effortlessly in city council, he said, “It was not so easy.”
On Wednesday, February 24, the day after city council voted the new ordinance into effect, the “tent city” behind America the Beautiful Park was quiet under an overcast sky. Makeshift shelters stood clumped together on the banks or alone under trees; under a nearby pedestrian overpass, two tents sat next to a fire pit circled by white plastic chairs. The faint smell of wood smoke hung in the air. Traffic on Cimarron and I-25 whooshed by up above, mostly out of sight. The camp was almost entirely empty of movement or voices. The traffic in the background and the creek created soothing white noise. A small flock of geese briefly broke the silence, waddling and squawking around a presently unoccupied pair of tents by the water’s edge. A truck driver honked his horn and waved through his cab window as he lumbered up the adjacent I-25 on-ramp. And once again, for the time being, all was calm.