Citing legal concerns with transient camps, OWN backs off from creek cleanupsOrganization of Westside Neighbors (OWN) volunteers will no longer lead cleanups of their adopted section of Fountain Creek and the Midland Trail until they're sure they won't get sued for disturbing transient camps.
OWN board members reached this consensus on the recommendation of their president, Welling Clark, after he met with City Parks and Police representatives April 17.
The long-time Westside neighborhood advocacy group contracted with the city four years ago to periodically clean up between 27th and 25th streets, an area that includes Vermijo Park.
Clark had asked for a city meeting because of his group's worry about facing litigation if they pick up items that they think are trash but actually belong to
The problem stems from the city's interpretation of its no-camping ordinance. The law, passed in 2010, prohibits camping in public places, “except as may be specifically authorized by the appropriate governmental authority.”
What that's come to mean, Clark said, based on City Attorney's Office direction, is that those violating the ordinance are given a 72-hour warning period by police, campers don't have to move at all if they have no place else to go, and volunteers who disturb camps risk lawsuits.
In a previous Westside Pioneer interview, a member of the specially assigned police unit called the Homeless Outreach (HOT) Team estimated that citywide there are up to 100 camps on a given night. Regarding campers with no place else to go, the officer estimated that 15 to 20 of those are typically registered sex offenders.
“The real problem our volunteers have is that when we go to pick up some visible debris, we don't know if it is part of an active homeless camp, an abandoned homeless camp or just a pile of discarded trash,” Clark said in an earlier written communication to City Parks Director Karen Palus.
The communication included a document displaying photos of trashy campsites with alcohol bottles and cans, plus a map identifying 14 sites near the creek and trail (all but one in Vermijo Park) that OWN found during its cleanup between 27th and 25th streets last October.
In a written response, Palus reiterated city rules that “we do not allow any volunteer groups to do homeless camp cleanups.” She said that groups planning cleanups should check with City Parks first to be sure that the HOT Team and a contracted nonprofit (Keep Colorado Springs Beautiful) “come through first to address any camps.”
Clark did express hope for a solution. Based on the meeting discussion, he plans to work with the city to write guidelines for volunteers. These would “establish timelines in advance of the cleanup days to ensure proper notification of the government/volunteer entities involved in assisting the volunteers to conduct a cleanup without the threat of lawsuit due to accidentally picking [up] debris that could be claimed by a camper/homeless/etc. person as their personal property,” he elaborated in an e-mail that went to city officials.
The guidelines would also state “points-of-contact, responsibilities of both volunteers and assisting government staff and all other common-sense points of information required for volunteers to conduct a successful and lawsuit-threat-free cleanup event,” Clark's e-mail continued.
However, there is no scheduled date for completion of the guidelines. And until they're complete, there will be “no trail clean ups,” Clark added in his post-meeting e-mail.
The city has been sued successfully before, by the American Civil Liberties Union, after an attempt in 2012 to regulate panhandling in the downtown.
Westside Pioneer article