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Sheriff: 'Mental health issues' with hard-core campers

       El Paso County Sheriff Bill Elder was not happy in mid-October at seeing several transient camps along Fountain Creek and the Midland Trail near Ridge Road.

El Paso County Sheriff Bill Elder and a deputy look at a transient camp Oct. 17 on the south bank of Fountain Creek, near the Midland Trail a few hundred feet east of Ridge Road. When Elder asked another deputy how recently the camp had been used, the reply he got was, "Probably last night."
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       “We've got to find a long-term solution,” he said as he surveyed scattered piles of discarded clothing, boxes, makeshift furniture, shopping carts and trash amid tangles of vegetation along the creek bank. In a number of cases, he asserted, “I think mental health issues are involved.”
       The occasion was a media event, set up by the county to dramatize that illegal camping - with winter weather coming - is “potentially dangerous for the homeless,” County Com-missioner Stan VanderWerf ex-plained.
       He also said the intent was to “express our compassion” and to point out that the county provides proactive assistance through its Department of Human Services to help people escape that plight.
       For the occasion, authorities led the news media to an abandoned camp by the creek that had been mostly cleaned up. Some remaining trash bags and debris were still there. Volunteers with Keep Colorado Springs Beautiful and a couple of people with community-service sentences were gathering up the last of it.
       The camp's cleanup had actually started a few days before, instigated by calls from citizens “concerned about their personal safety,” VanderWerf said.
       It was at that camp that broadcast media members chose to set up their cameras for on-air interviews.

With a mostly cleaned-up transient camp for a backdrop next to Fountain Creek east of Ridge Road, El Paso County Commissioner Stan VanderWerf answers media questions Oct. 17.
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       However, informal conversations with Colorado Springs and Sheriff's Office law enforcement officers who specialize in homeless issues revealed that about 100 feet farther down the creek were more camps, which were still active - at least for the time being (a Colorado Springs Utilities project was scheduled to come through).
       Sheriff Elder joined this impromptu tour and voiced his dismay at what he saw. “We're not solving the problem,” he said. “We're just cleaning it up. And it uses up manpower and resources.”
       This sentiment was echoed by the officers, including Tim Kippel of the CSPD and Sean Ives of the Sheriff's Office. They said they see this all the time, even though public camping is illegal in both the city and county and is only allowed on private land when owners give permission.
       The officers know where most of the camps are, but when they tell violators to move on (after giving notice of at least three days), many just find new places, the officers explained.
       Some locations are particularly choice, so officers can expect to find activity there almost anytime they check around, Ives mentioned.
       Local government policies are to not move campers if there is limited space at the local rescue shelters. But that's a non-issue for the 100 or more who live that way by choice - often described by the term “hard-core.”

This camp, with unattended trash, was about 100 feet downstream.
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       Until about 10 years ago, local governments would conduct monthly “sweeps” to get rid of outdoor camps, but that ended after homeless advocates complained that constitutional rights were being violated.
       In 2010, both Colorado Springs and El Paso County passed no-camping laws, but enforcement complications have since cropped up. Officers can cite violators, but they often don't show up in court, and if they do, they can claim inability to pay the fine.
       Until about two years ago, local courts would sentence such violators to jail time, but the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) took legal steps to end that practice, calling it a “debtors' prison” kind of trap.
       So now there is no way for government to stop hard-core types from camping if they want to. All that local governments and volunteers can do is provide positive alternatives and pledges of assistance should they choose to change their ways.
       The success of that approach is debatable. According to Kippel, around the city there are currently at least 700 campers on a given day, typically two or three to a camp. While exact statistics are elusive, making comparisons difficult, estimates provided by authorities over the years indicate that camping numbers initially went down after the 2010 laws, but have climbed back up of late.
       Kippel added that last winter there weren't significantly fewer camps, as traditionally has been the case when cold weather hits. Also, he said, officers have been seeing a lot of new faces among the campers - many of whom say they came to the area hoping for work in the “marijuana industry.”
       Along with leaving trash behind and causing citizen uneasiness, many campers are known to use drugs and alcohol and - last winter especially - to set fires that can get out of control. They also face dangers from colder weather and from a “criminal element” that persists among them, Elder said.
       Overall, people who choose that lifestyle have to be “mentally unstable,” he concluded, suggesting that “the long-term answer” is for them to get treatment.
       However, he did not define a strategy for convincing such people to willingly opt for that course of action.

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