Concerns by City Council about transient campers’ civil rights

       A draft of a no-camping ordinance gained no support from Colorado Springs City Council at its informal meeting Dec. 7.

The recent sub-zero weather drove many campers to the shelter for warmth. (When it gets below freezing, people are accepted even if they've been drinking.) The above shanty off Highway 24 just west of the Cimarron/I-25 interchange was pretty well snowed in the afternoon of Dec. 7. In the foreground is Fountain Creek.
Westside Pioneer photo

       After over an hour of discussion, the group tossed the political hot potato back to city staff and Homeward Pikes Peak (the city-recognized umbrella organization for homeless matters), in quest of an overall homeless strategy that will somehow please everyone.
       A progress report was tentatively scheduled for council's first informal meeting in February.
       But if the Dec. 7 meeting comments were any indication, a plan to discourage the increasing numbers of transient camps - including several along Fountain Creek on the Westside - may not be forthcoming. Despite a joint presentation by City Police and Homeward Pikes Peak expressing concerns about sanitation, panhandling, errant fires, alcohol/drug use and lack of cooperation from some campers, no council members championed the proposed restrictions. And, three councilmembers - Jan Martin and, at greater length, Tom Gallagher and Larry Small - verbalized concerns that such would infringe on the civil rights of the homeless themselves.
       A key point for police and Homeward was that help from the public and/or private sector should be coupled with campers working on their own to get back on their feet. But Gallagher would have none of it, charging that the proposal “makes it a crime to be in a sleeping bag,” Martin did not like that police could “pick and choose” who to enforce the laws against, and Small spurned compassion with rules, saying he stands for “unconditional compassion.”
       “I don't think we have the right to say we'll help if you become what we want you to become,” he elaborated. “I think we can provide help and let people become what they want to become. I think they should be allowed to live the lifestyle they want to live.”
       At one point, Kurt Pillard, commander of the PD's Gold Hill station and Gallagher had an exchange, prompted by the councilman's remark that “the gauge of a community is how they treat their least fortunate.”
       Pillard responded that “this is about compassion. An ordinance like this would help them move in the right direction.” If it was in place, “I think they're law-abiding enough they'd use another option, move on to someplace else, to a shelter, to a motel room. There are other options available.”
       He and Police Chief Richard Myers also emphasized the positive results of the department's Homeless Outreach Team (HOT), which looks for ways to help campers find help or even work.
       But Gallagher was not convinced, insisting that only “a tiny percentage of people have chosen this lifestyle.” Shrugging aside reports of frequent transient-camp fire calls, Gallagher argued that fires have also recently “burned down a lot of houses.”
       In the same vein, Small said that drug use can be found in wealthy neighborhoods.
       Even Police Chief Richard Myers, who has overseen the effort over the past eight months to work with the City Attorney's Office to draft an effective ordinance, expressed some ambivalence about the result. Even though the intent is to use a no-camping law as “a measure of last resort, after all others have been exhausted,” he said that the police “do have concerns about implementation issues. Some people have lauded us for finally cracking down on the problem, while some have condemned us for even considering it.”
       Myers did stress that if the law were in place it would only be as “a measure of last resort, after all others have been exhausted. Simply writing tickets isn't the solution. We aren't going to arrest our way out of the problem.”
       Homeward Pikes Peak Director Bob Holmes said that in the current situation the homeless shelter is not full, and the reason that many campers don't use it is because of its ban on alcohol and drug use. He proposed construction of a “sobering beds” facility with 100 beds (which he said would still not be enough) to help transition such people and at least get them into a safer, healthier place than a makeshift campsite.
       Cost is a factor. During the meeting, Pillard provided a chart showing that in a one-mile radius of the Cimarron/I-25 interchange, where most of the transient camps are, there have been 1,800 homeless-related calls for service within six months.
       Providing direction for the February meeting, Mayor Lionel Rivera asked Holmes and Myers “to give us information on how much money the city is giving homeless providers, who in fact is receiving those funds and what are we getting for them, because if were not getting good results from the money we're providing, then maybe we need to look at a different way of doing things.”
       Rivera, along with Councilmember Sean Paige came short of supporting the ordinance proposal, though both expressed sympathy for citizens offended by the camps. “You have to also have compassion for the business people who are hanging by a thread” because they have to worry how “aggressive panhandlers near their store” will affect customers, Paige said.
       City Police had actually proposed two ordinances - one simply banning camping in parks and a second disallowing camping on any public property without a permit. The concept had the support of several area business and citizen groups, according to Kurt Pillard, commander of the PD's Gold Hill station. The Organization of Westside Neighbors (OWN) had supported the ordinance, albeit with concerns about where permitted sites might be, but councilmembers never actually debated the wording.
       Myers and Pillard also did not explain, nor were they asked, to explain how they decided on the ordinance wording. Pillard has previously told the Westside Pioneer that the city was modeling it after that of Orlando, Fla., because of that city's successful record of enforcement and lack of court challenges.
       He said it was “at the request of many homeowner and business groups that have grown increasingly frustrated at the diminishing quality of life that some of these camps have led to.”

Westside Pioneer article