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Break-in at Old Colorado City History Center puts vagrancy issue in spotlight

       Police have been investigating a break-in at the Old Colorado City History Center the night of July 6, but the crime has already brought to a head the volunteer-run facility's growing frustration with local vagrants.
       In the burglary, one or more criminals used a pry bar to force open a door and gain entry. No historical valuables were stolen or damaged; the only loss was a
During the last day for the benches/picnic tables that had been in the courtyard of the Old Colorado City History Center, volunteer Werner Karlson finishes doing some weeding. Five of the six benches can be seen in the photo. Donated to the center as an Eagle Scout project three years ago, they've now been given to the neighborhood (part of which can be seen in the background, on the north side of Pikes Peak Avenue) because of vagrants using them for beds at night.
Westside Pioneer photo
donation box containing $13 in cash. It could have been more, but the Old Colorado City Historical Society (OCCHS) routinely empties the box at closing time, according to Suzanne Schorsch, the facility's treasurer.
       The box itself is worth more than the money in it, she said, expressing aggravation that the thieves kept it even though (based on evidence) they'd already opened it before they left.
       The center is in a 126-year-old church at 1 S. 24th St. that was remodeled nearly 20 years ago into a museum, bookshop, lecture hall and storage place for artifacts from the Westside's past. It's owned and operated by the OCCHS, an all-volunteer nonprofit that covers the building's upkeep through donations and various fundraisers.
      
The Old Colorado City History Center, in a converted church at the southeast corner of 24th Street and Pikes Peak Avenue, is shown at the time of its 10th anniversary in 2007.
Westside Pioneer file photo
Regarding vagrancy, the incident dramatized the center's lingering problem with people who have been routinely using the center's courtyard as a nighttime hangout for more than a year. According to Schorsch, residents in the surrounding neighborhood have taken photos showing the vagrants going there at night to sleep, socialize and even to use the outside of the building for a bathroom.
       For sleep, the trespassers would employ six courtyard benches/picnic tables as “bunk beds,” said one neighbor (who asked to stay anonymous).
       Neighbors asked the OCCHS to remove the benches, to keep the vagrants away. And indeed that happened the day after the break-in, with the center giving them to the neighborhood.
       As a short background, a local Boy Scout had designed and built the benches (after fundraising $700 to cover material costs) and then donated them to the center in May 2013 for an Eagle Scout project. They were made in such a way that they could quickly be converted from benches to tables and back again.
       At the time, OCCHS members - most of them retirees in their 60s or older - were ecstatic about the gift, saying it would save them having to carry chairs and tables in and out of the building. Crafters renting
Suzanne Schorsch is the treasurer for the volunteer Old Colorado City Historical Society.
Westside Pioneer file photo
space from the OCCHS had also been using the benches to help sort their goods during their summer-Saturday sales outside the building, Schorsch said.
       There is no proof at this time, but OCCHS volunteers are suspicious that the July 6 break-in could have been perpetrated by one or more people from the “bunk-bed” crowd. Since they started showing up, a number of burglaries have allegedly occurred in and around nearby homes (although typically not reported to police), and the thinking is that the trespassers would have had time and proximity to study how to break into the center.
       Two of the men known to hang out at the center, as well as in nearby Bancroft Park, were arrested by police in the park July 7, a neighbor reported. The Westside Pioneer was able to confirm with police five days later that two men were arrested in the park on that date and held on suspicion of drug possession.
       Varying numbers of individuals routinely sleep wherever they can (Fountain Creek is another popular spot) and congregate during the daytime in Bancroft Park. In previous interviews, police have explained they can't simply remove campers on public lands - despite a city law saying it's illegal - based on unwritten policies directing officers not to do so when the homeless shelters are full or other free alternatives are not available.
       Police have also pointed out that people, even if they're grubby and creepy, are allowed to lounge in the park, unless they commit an actual crime.
       For the History Center, the issue has become expensive. Schorsch estimated that the OCCHS has spent a total of $6,000 on multiple efforts to deter bums from using the center as a hangout. The work has included redoing the entrance's access ramp (removing places to hide) and adding lighting to discourage sleepers. But the lighting has had the reverse effect of letting the bums see better when they're enjoying themselves late at night, she pointed out.
       After the recent break-in, the OCCHS is looking at new costs for better locks and mitigation outside the building, including covering a grate to discourage the continued “bathroom” usage.
       Schorsch put the $6,000 into perspective, noting that it represents about a quarter of the center's budget. “For an organization our size, that's pretty damn sad,” she said.

       UPDATE, July 18: Police Officer Tim Kippel responded July 18 to the Westside Pioneer inquiry about the July 6 break-in, reporting that police found "no suspect information" and the case has been closed.

Westside Pioneer/press release
(Posted 7/7/16, updated 7/18/16; Land: Construction)

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