Solutions sought in first big meeting of west-of-31st group
Many lament transient camp impacts; open fires along creek not a crime, city fire officials say

       The first meeting of the newly formed Avenue Merchants group Sept. 29 revealed a strong community desire to resolve problems chiefly related to a burgeoning number of vagrant camps along Fountain Creek west of 31st Street that have attendant issues of open fires and lack of sanitation.

Michael Crepeau, a co-founder of the Avenue Merchants group, goes over a list of issues that he had jotted down during the meeting Sept. 29 at the Shrine Club. Most of the issues related to vagrancy.
Westside Pioneer photo

       Also brought out during the gathering of close to 75 people in the Shrine Club's main hall were concerns about felony-type crimes, including drug dealing and prostitution, in and around some of the motels along Colorado Avenue. Mike Crepeau, a hotel owner himself who is one of the Avenue Merchants founders, said he has seen a “traffic pattern” of people going between some creekside camps and motels. Still, he and several others tempered their comments with positive comments about the area. “There is a lot to offer here,” Crepeau said.
       The Avenue Merchant group, consisting of 30 to 40 businesses west of 31st Street up to Manitou Springs city limits, began coming together this summer, finding a common cause as problems mounted. Speaking at the start of the roughly two-hour meeting, Robert Maez, another of the founders (who run the UPS business in the Red Rock Center), outlined concerns about the camps, doors being kicked in, trespassing issues and petty crime that's “way more than we want.” He said the group called the meeting “to get feedback” from the community and civic leaders and work on ideas.
       Jerry Heimlicher, the outgoing Colorado Springs City Council member, had helped organize the meeting in hopes of gaining the same kind of success as the city achieved in the past couple of years on a blighted segment of South Nevada Avenue.
       Several public officials attended the meeting, but no immediate solutions were indicated. City Council members Scott Hente and Randy Purvis in particular cited a tight-budget situation and the possibility of city services having to be cut further if voters fail to pass an increase in the city's property tax mill levy in November.
       Police Chief Richard Myers offered to meet with the merchant group and other community leaders in a smaller venue without the general citizenry. This would let them “kick the can around,” he said, asserting that “we can't solve this with a large group.”
       At the same time, Myers cautioned not to expect too much, with police resources potentially being reduced. Even as it is, less threatening problems such as panhandling “fall way down the priority list,” he said.
       Asked about the open fires along Fountain Creek, R.C. Lewis of the City Fire Department said they're OK “if they're non-threatening.” And, Fire Marshal Brett Lacey said that “recreational fires” are allowed. “We don't want to tell the homeless they can't have warming fires and can't cook their food,” he said.

Bob Holmes, director of Homeward Pikes Peak, the city's umbrella agency for homeless issues, explains some of the services available to down-and-outers during the Avenue Merchants meeting attended by about 75 people Sept. 29. At the tables facing the attendees are public officials (elected and staff people).
Westside Pioneer photo

       The Avenue Merchants got offers of help from Charles Irwin, president of the 104-member Old Colorado City Associates (OCCA) merchants group; and Welling Clark, president of the Organization of Westside Neighbors (OWN), the city-recognized residential advocacy group for the older Westside.
       A comment at the meeting noted that a new, vagrancy-related ordinance has been under discussion in recent months by the police and City Attorney's Office. The proposed law (previously written about in the Westside Pioneer), would ban camping on city public land. Hente and Purvis told the meeting they would look into this.
       There are complications in addressing problems in the area sometimes known as “No man's land,” County Commissioner Sallie Clark explained, because it is multi- jurisdictional, with county land on the south side of the avenue, city land on the north and the road itself maintained by the state. She summarized unsuccessful city, county and Manitou Springs efforts to get grants to work on aging public facilities there.
       Long-time Westside leader Dave Hughes suggested that the city annex the area to counter what he called “the hole in the doughnut,” but was advised that the area itself would need to petition in, under state law.
       Democrat District 18 State Rep. Michael Merrifield, who is term-limited after serving eight years in the Statehouse, asked about following through on some homeless advocates' proposal of establishing a “dignity village” that could accommodate people who might now be living along the creek. But Myers replied that he'd already looked into such a plan and determined that “it hasn't worked anywhere it's been tried.”
       Bonnie Lapora, a Neighborhood Watch captain of an area with 133 homes north of that part of the avenue, said she's getting reports of “people walking through and taking everything that's not tied down - a ladder here, a gas tank off a camper there.” Simultaneously, she pointed out that nowadays there seems to be “a panhandler at every entrance” to Safeway. “I feel sorry for them, but as a woman alone, I feel threatened.”
       Tim Tafoya, owner of Old Colorado City Surplus, said he overheard a cell-phone conversation in his store recently in which the caller was telling someone elsewhere to come to the Springs because the services for the homeless are so good here. Tafoya said there should be an ordinance “preventing camping on the creeks.” However, Tafoya was not eager to vote for the city mill-levy increase. His building's assessment recently came in - double what it used to be. And, under tax laws in Colorado, any increase in property taxes hits business property owners harder than residential.
       Diane Dimbat, a Thunder & Buttons manager, offered the opinion that the Westside has always had its “urban outdoorsmen,” but that recently those numbers have been expanded by “vagrants passing through” who lack respect for the area.
       Matt Carpenter, Manitou's nationally known high-altitude runner, let it be known that “even on our side, this is an issue. At Soda Springs Park, we have people up on the stage all day.”
       Over the summer, police instituted a new outreach called the Homeless Outreach Team (HOT), which has proven popular with merchants as well as the destitute because team members try to help them solve their problems instead of seeking enforcement against them. However, no statistics were offered to show if HOT has reduced transient camping numbers, and the anecdotal evidence at the meeting indicated otherwise.

Westside Pioneer article