Colorado SpringsHomelessnessHot Sheet

Colorado Springs residents take sides on proposed creekside camping crackdown

Author: Jakob Rodgers, The Gazette - June 15, 2018 - Updated: June 15, 2018

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A homeless camp behind Rocky Top Resources in April 2018. (The Gazette file photo)

About 70 people at a town hall Thursday were split over a proposal to crack down on homeless camps along creeks in Colorado Springs, with many saying it would improve water quality and trail safety.

Others, though, argued the idea would cause more problems than it would fix.

“A ban without a plan is not a workable solution,” countered Glenn Pressman, who sits on the Friends of Red Rock Canyon’s board. “You’re just looking for a big headache.”

The proposal, which is scheduled for a vote by City Council on June 26, would ban camping within 100 feet of the city’s waterways and concrete drainage canals. A violator could face up to $2,500 in fines and 180 days in jail.

While the city already bans camping on public property, enforcement would be far more stringent in creekside areas because police would not have to ensure that shelter beds are available before issuing a summons.

The ordinance aims to keep people safe from flash floods while cutting down on filth in the city’s waterways, said Richard Mulledy, who manages the city’s waterways. Unhealthy levels of E. coli exist in Fountain Creek, drawing the ire of state and federal water regulators.

At least 14 tons of trash have been removed so far this year from the city’s creeks, and another 18 tons were removed in 2017,

The 100-foot boundary mimics U.S. Forest Service camping regulations, as well as a county regulation for how far wastewater treatment systems must be kept from wells, Mulledy said.

Supporters – mostly people living on the city’s west side – lamented Fountain Creek’s degradation.

David Leinweber, owner and president of Angler’s Covey beside Fountain Creek near 21st Street, said the fouled creeks presented a poor image for the city.

“There is so much waste and trash down there, it’s incredible,” Leinweber said. “And right now, I wouldn’t let any kid play in the creek. They are not safe right now.”

Just as many – if not more – people said the ordinance was needed to improve safety on the trails by those creeks.

West side resident Kimberly Bloomer said she had been accosted six times in recent weeks while running on west side trails. In one instance, a man fondled himself in front of her.

“This is not OK,” Bloomer said. “We need to remove these people from recreational areas. We spent hundreds of thousands of dollars building this trial that we can’t even use safely.”

Many others, however, chided the proposal as being unfairly punitive against people who are homeless.

The leaders of Homeward Pikes Peak, Westside CARES and Community Health Partnership opposed the plan – pleading with City Council members to focus instead on creating more affordable housing and resources for homeless people, rather than punish them.

“We should be focusing the energy of this community on solving the housing issues, instead of penalizing those who are unable to keep a roof over their head and who are making due with situations that are beyond their control,” said Beth Roalstad, executive director of Homeward Pikes Peak.

Aimee Cox, CEO of Community Health Partnership and the city’s former point person on homelessness, urged city officials not to pass the ordinance – especially without a larger plan to address homelessness.

She reminded council members that no research has tied the high E. coli levels to homeless campers. Rather, previous studies have pinned the bacteria on migratory birds and, more recently, urban and suburban development, livestock and wastewater treatment systems.

She suggested that if camping is banned close to creeks, so should residents’ dogs.

“The dog waste in this town is prolific,” Cox said.

Others feared that banning campers from the city’s creekbeds would cause Red Rocks Open Space, nearby neighborhoods and even commercial areas to become inundated with campers.

Pressman questioned the constitutionality of such a ban.

“There has to be a place for people to go,” Pressman said.

Andrew Phelps, the city’s homelessness prevention and response coordinator, said the ordinance would protect Colorado Springs’ waterways, which are its “jewels,” while city leaders seek to address homelessness in other ways.

But, when pressed by Councilman Bill Murray, Phelps acknowledged that no estimate exists of how many people could be displaced by the ordinance.

The region’s annual homeless count in January found that 513 of the 1,551 people living homelessness in El Paso County were unsheltered – meaning they slept outside in camps or on the streets.

While some shelter beds go unused, the city remains hundreds of beds short of being able to shelter all of those people.

Murray appeared unswayed.

“We don’t know how big the population is we’re about to displace,” Murray said. “Where are they going to go?”

“It’s real simple to answer that question,” replied Andy Pico, who has previously voiced support for the measure. “We’re going to displace them 100 feet.”

Jakob Rodgers, The Gazette

Jakob Rodgers, The Gazette