Homeless-fires meeting provides more questions than answersJan. 12, 2018
A month after announcing a policy that “warming/recreational fires” were OK at illegal camps (see article at this link), the city is now putting a stronger emphasis on putting out such blazes - at least as long as a recently opened homeless “warming shelter” downtown remains unfilled.
This was the message relayed by District 3 City Councilmember Richard Skorman Jan. 11 at a standing-room-only meeting at the Westside Community Center about the increasing numbers of homeless fires in Colorado Springs.
His council district includes the Old Colorado City area of the Westside.
District 1 Councilmember Don Knight, who also attended the meeting, said later he did not see the issue quite the same way as Skorman, but would look into whether warming fires can legally be put out once the shelters are full, based on court rulings tied to the U.S. Constitution's Amendment 8 (regarding “cruel and unusual punishment”).
According to Aundrea Fuller of the Community Center, 125 chairs were set out for the meeting. Nearly all of these were filled, with about 25 more people standing in back and along the sides.
The meeting was scheduled on just two days's notice by the volunteer advocacy group, Organization of Westside Neighbors (OWN), inspired by a recent close call with a “warming fire” that burned out of control Jan. 5 near the Angler's Covey business at 21st and Highway 24, OWN board member Linda Schlarb said.
OWN President Jim Thompson revealed that in 2016 the city had 186 homeless fires, 275 in 2017 and 14 already reported in 2018. “Certainly it's a concern,” he told the audience. “I know there is frustration, outrage and anger.”
Citizen questions reflected worry about these numbers and the consequent risks to homes and businesses. There were also comments about trash, unsanitary conditions and intimidating encounters with vagrants.
“Why aren't you enforcing the laws?” summed up Dave Leinweber, owner of Angler's Covey, who tempered his words with the comment that “we donate heavily to the Springs Rescue Mission” (which provides shelter space).
Officials at the meeting could offer no immediate solutions to the fire issue, although City Homeless Prevention Coordinator Andrew Phelps said that some low-cost
But the commissioner also pointed to another growing problem - “homeless camping in the forests” - opining that with dry weather possibly continuing “we could have another Waldo Canyon Fire.” He continued that “I sense this community is scared.”
Skorman said he would like to see bathroom availability for campers, trash bags (to help them clean up after themselves), “a place for their needles [after they use drugs]” and better containment in general.
He asked those in attendance if they would support a sales tax to help cover homeless-related costs, and more than half the room raised their hands.
In contrast, another citizen asked why panhandlers - many of whom also camp out - can't be taxed to help pay for the services they're provided. This proposal did not go to a show of hands.
The meeting was noteworthy in part for the absence of representatives from both the City Police and Fire departments. Skorman said he was surprised by this and would look into it.
The Westside Pioneer sent an e-mail to Fire Chief Ted Collas the morning of Jan. 12 (the day after the meeting), asking about his department's meeting absence and for clarification on what Skorman had said about city warming-fire policies.
Collas e-mailed back that he had not been told about the Jan. 11 meeting: “No invitation was sent to our department personnel.” As for warming-fire enforcement, he said “there are no enforcement differences between [a media release] sent on Dec. 15 and what is in place today.” He also wanted to “assure the public that their safety is of the utmost importance.”
Earlier in the week, according to a Fire Department spokesperson, Collas had apologized to Leinweber for an aspect of his department's response to the Jan. 5 fire - specifically, firefighters' refusal to put out a second fire at a camp nearby. They told Leinweber it was protected as a “warming fire,” but it was actually in violation because the camp was abandoned at the time. Leinweber and his wife put out the fire themselves.
As it was, at the meeting, the only government staff person was El Paso County Sheriff's Office Lt. Bill Huffor, who is assigned to that agency's homeless outreach effort.
He made it clear that he tries to understand both sides on the issue, but his impression is that the campers are generally “cooperative and compliant” when they're told to move - although typically the county has to clean up after them (at an average cost of $800).
In six months, Huffor said, his office has issued no citations for illegal camping. However, he pointed out that in many of those cases, he knows the campers are just going to relocate to another site.
As for fires, Huffor said the county follows the same rules as the city, including the International Fire Code's “recreational fire” regulations - which CSFD has equated with warming fires - calling for a 25-foot distance from “combustibles.” But he said enforcement can get complicated because officers don't always know who owns the property the fire is on.
One citizen question was whether the definition of combustibles included the utility lines that run under bridges. One such line, containing fiber optic used for phone and internet, was what burned in the 21st/Highway 24 fire, Leinweber said, putting numerous people out of service for two days. But without anyone from CSFD on hand, no answer could be provided. After the meeting, Collas said the question was "very difficult to answer because of a large number of variables."
Huffor was at a table in front of the audience, flanked by Bundgaard, who works with a group called the Coalition for Compassion and Action (affiliated with Blackbird Outreach), which supports homeless causes and is advocating "quaint, unique tiny home villages dotting the neighborhoods of Colorado Springs," according to its website.
Speaking on behalf of the campers, Bundgaard said at one point that if people “are sick and tired of the fires,” they should donate so campers could have more propane-powered heaters.
Pointing out the flammability of propane, a citizen asked, “What makes that safer?”
Bundgaard said propane heaters are popular because they can be set closer to a tent than a fire.
A CSFD chart states that an LP gas open-flame cooking device (which can use propane) must be 10 feet “from combustible structures.”
One meeting attendee said she regularly provides propane bottles to the campers.
Responding to a comment from Phelps that the city has a 10-year plan to end homelessness dating back to 2014, Ryan Jones, who is working with an Ivywild community group on homeless-issue solutions, presented the city official with an 11-page city document from 2005, titled a “Five-Year Blueprint to End Homelessness.” Jones asked Phelps what happened to that plan.
Phelps, who has only been with the city for three months, said he would resesarch it.
Bundgaard offered excuses for some of the ongoing complaints about homeless/vagrants. These included the following:
- Camping in general - should be allowable (at least until more “robust, systemic solutions” are in place, he said). Bundgaard cited the 8th Amendment, saying court rulings have proven that it upholds people's “right to survive.”
- Shelters not used by some - “They're crowded, dirty and claustrophobic, and some people don't want to be sober.”
- Theft - “When they have addictions, they have to steal.”
- Leaving trash - “When you're stuck in a state of survival, you can't do anything else.”
Westside Pioneer article