- Associated Press - Saturday, May 28, 2016

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) - Darin Taylor is transient, in every sense of the word.

Almost every day, he packs up the blue and white tent that he and his girlfriend share under the Tejon Street bridge. He stuffs it into a shopping cart holding nearly all their belongings - his girlfriend’s oxygen tank included.

He repeats the cycle with nearly each sunrise and each sunset.

And he’s far from alone, The Gazette reported (https://bit.ly/1OXe2z9).

Far too few shelter beds exist in El Paso County, leaving homeless people with little choice but to risk their safety and break a city ordinance by camping, homeless advocates say. The problem appeared to worsen in mid-April, when two seasonal homeless shelters closed for the season.

The result has been a rise in outdoor homeless communities across the city - all of which remains illegal.

Standing beside his creekside tent, Taylor, 46, minced no words.

“There ain’t nowhere here for the homeless to go in the summertime,” Taylor said.

Aware of the situation, Colorado Springs police recently reiterated they cannot enforce ordinances banning camping on public property when no alternatives exist. The statement is nothing new - officers have long been banned from ticketing people for camping on public property when shelter beds are full.

But it has taken on new meaning this spring.

“As everyone knows, there is not that much shelter space available,” Lt. Jeff Jensen recently told a gathering of nonprofits serving the homeless.

Still, there are caveats.

Relaxed enforcement only pertains to vacant city property (such as certain open fields). And the moment any beds open up (even for a day), officers can once again enforce the ordinance, Jensen said.

Meanwhile, a ban on camping in city parks remains in place. That includes such areas as America the Beautiful Park, Acacia Park and Antlers Park.

Further, police say they will continue to ticket people camping on private land under the city’s trespassing ordinance.

And in a twist, police are telling people not to camp under the popular South Nevada Avenue and Tejon Street bridges, due to flooding concerns.

Camping bans also exist for El Paso County property and parks. And the U.S. Forest Service does not allow people to live on national forest land, though recreational campers can stay in an area for two weeks.

Left to deal with those complicated rules are homeless people who appear uncertain where they can and cannot sleep every night. Few signs exist directing campers to places that are on or off limits for sleeping outside when shelter beds are full.

For Taylor, the mere threat of being ticketed for illegally camping keeps him always on the move - slowing his attempts to find housing.

“We’re not trying to look for no trouble, and yet we have been threatened with a ticket,” Taylor said. “All we’re trying to do is get on our feet, and it’s sad because it’s extra work that we got to do.”

He and his girlfriend, Theresa Graham, 48, arrived in Colorado six months ago from Ogden, Utah, after Graham’s health deteriorated significantly. She and Taylor moved in with her brother, but they quickly grew uncomfortable with the living arrangement.

They stayed in a motel for a couple weeks, and also stayed at the Salvation Army’s cold-weather shelter that closed in mid-April. Ever since then, they’ve mostly camped.

Most recently, they pitched a tent under the Tejon Street bridge. They live off Graham’s $733-a-month disability check while Taylor tries to get a new ID, which was recently stolen.

That involves getting a new birth certificate, which also was stolen.

Living outside, Graham’s health has worsened.

She suffers from emphysema and diabetes, and the diabetes has triggered varying stages of neuropathy in her feet. Doctors suspect she also tore the meniscus in one knee, for which she is expected to undergo outpatient surgery in a few weeks, she said.

She has two crutches to help her walk.

One of those crutches was recently used to help prop up another, more disheveled tent 10 feet away from her own.

Living there were Kathy Baker, 52, and her husband, Terry Cagle, 48 - two people who have mostly lived in their truck since becoming homeless in March 2015. They tried to find work in Aurora, but their vehicle was impounded.

They took the Bustang bus service back to Colorado Springs, and have largely been camping since then.

On the concrete wall above their tents a spray-painted sign declares: “ABSOLUTELY NO CAMPING OR LOITERING.”

Baker wishes she could stop camping, but she says she has nowhere to go.

“It’s not right - we’re people, too,” Baker said, weeping. “It’s scary. It’s scary. And it takes a toll on everything, you know, our marriage and everything.”

One hundred yards downstream, a dozen other tents were nestled beneath the Nevada Avenue bridge.

There, people shrugged off the potential for floodwaters and spoke of that location’s benefits: A place out of the rain, relief from the summer heat and increased safety. It is well-traveled, making crime less likely, and people there can easily flag down motorists in case of an emergency, or if someone is assaulted (a constant fear).

For years, officers said they held off ticketing people under the South Nevada Avenue and Tejon Street bridges, despite it being owned by the Colorado Department of Transportation.

But their approach changed this spring after storms last year washed sediment into the creek bed, raising the baseline flood level, Jensen said.

Roughly 25 tents and makeshift tarp shelters were removed in mid-April, Jensen said. More camps will be removed and people could be ticketed in the future for that same reason, he added.

Before doing so, however, officers are waiting for Colorado transportation officials to erect signs warning people not to camp there.

“If we don’t, they will die,” Jensen said. “When it rains, that area is going to flood.”

In addition, Jensen said the “marshlands” area stretching along Fountain Creek from the Tejon Street bridge west and north to Cimarron Street also may be placed off-limits to camping because of flooding concerns.

Jensen said the Police Department rarely writes tickets for camping on public property, and none have been written since the seasonal shelters closed in mid-April.

Officers view such tickets as an absolute last resort, he said, because they prefer to work with campers to help them access services and work their way out of homelessness. Usually, campers cooperate with officers, he said.

“We don’t want to write you a ticket - it’s not solving anything by us doing it,” Jensen said. “We’d much rather explain to you why you can’t be here and have you not be there.”

He said the Police Department’s Homeless Outreach Team has been trying to educate people on the nuances of where people can and cannot camp when shelter beds are full.

“What’s blatantly obvious to everybody is more shelter space is needed and more transitional housing is needed,” Jensen said. “Because that’s where the true answer lies.”

The only options for shelter in El Paso County are a few small programs and the Salvation Army’s 200-bed R.J. Montgomery Center. Normally, that shelter is at or near capacity, meaning that anyone who wants a bed likely won’t get one.

No other options are available until Nov. 1.

On that day, the Springs Rescue Mission is expected to open a new, 150-bed shelter that will remain open year-round. Drug or alcohol sobriety will not be required for admission. A welcome center and a massive kitchen and dining room are slated to open in 2017.

But without more beds, people will still be forced to try to survive outside.

Last winter, for example, the city’s two seasonal shelters housed an average of 200 people a night, combined.

Even with the vast majority of those beds full, a one-night survey in January found more than 300 additional people sleeping outside.

City officials and several nonprofits serving the homeless are expected to meet in early June to discuss how to handle the rise in homeless camps this summer, said Aimee Cox, the city’s community development manager. The meeting will not be open to the public, she said.

She said the biggest impediment to opening more shelter space is the lack of nonprofit organizations in the region that have the capacity to run a shelter or expand their current operations. For its part, the city does not operate such services, opting instead to help finance and support nonprofits that have more experience running shelters, she said.

For Taylor, it all boils down to one problem.

Colorado Springs, its nonprofits and its residents do a great job of providing meals and clothing to the homeless, he said.

But a place to sleep inside is another matter.

“I understand we got to help ourselves to get help,” Taylor said. “But we are helping ourselves. I’m running around using the resources and doing what I’m told.

“But the hoops are a little hard to jump through.”

___

Information from: The Gazette, https://www.gazette.com

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide