by Nat Stein
Campers living at 5 W. Las Vegas Ave got a rude awakening Wednesday as word of eviction quickly made way around the tent village. It came first from security guards with Springs Rescue Mission, the property owner, and later more emphatically from Colorado Springs Police Department’s HOT team. The message was unequivocal: everyone must pack up and leave by 3 p.m.
Anguish and frustration mingled with the harsh chill of the season’s first truly wintery morning.
“Where am I supposed to go now?” asked a 20-year-old survivor of human trafficking who goes by Miss America. “When you’re a girl, everyone goes after you,” she said while hurriedly packing up her once cozy tent. “But they,” she said, gesturing to her neighbors on either side, both men, “they stop these creepy guys from raping me at night.”
The campers reluctantly disbanded, some pushing carts or bikes. One man in Army pants with visibly deformed ankles leans heavily on his walker as another man seems to have an anxiety attack facing a wall. There’s disagreement over whether it’s better to find a new spot together or separately, call motels or churches, go find food or warmer clothes. The cold drizzle veers into sleet as people step out into an even less certain future.
The Last Sanctuary — as the camp is called — was born with a longer life expectancy. As the Indy previously reported, people first set up in SRM’s parking lot in September to avoid trouble on trails, under bridges and in open spaces where camping is illegal. The Mission’s property is private, where camping can be legal.
Key words: can be. It’s dependent on owner permission and code enforcement.
The Mission originally gave permission for the camp to stay until November 10, when 185 new shelter beds are slated to open. “It wasn’t an intentional strategy,” SRM spokesman Travis Williams told the Indy at the time, “but we just recognized there [were] very few options for people to go where they feel safe.”
At the time, law enforcement was eyeing the situation but reported no major issues. Campers tried to keep it that way by convening meetings to strategize keeping the place tidy, orderly and limited in size.
It worked, but only to a degree. Trash accumulated in — and eventually around — the available bins. More people moved in and set up camp, crowding the village into close quarters. And interpersonal tensions arose as they’re wont to do in such circumstances.
Sign that city officials had had enough first came at an early morning “Coffee and Civics” event hosted by the Council of Neighborhood Organizations where Mayor John Suthers told attendees the issues at the camp were “insurmountable.” Later that afternoon, the city issued a notice to SRM giving them 48 hours to provide a “plan of action” for disbanding the camp. The next morning SRM issued the wake up call telling campers to leave by 3 p.m.
Making that call was “devastating” for SRM CEO Larry Yonkers, who told reporters at a Wednesday morning press conference that “this has been one of the worst days of my life.” He emphasized that his nonprofit is “using all the resources we have” and “working as hard as we can” to get a new $28 million campus up-and-running, but that given “the legal liability we have since it’s on our property, I felt we had to take action today and move as quickly as we could to minimize risk.”
As for what exactly made the camp a violation now and not weeks ago, head of the neighborhood services division Mitch Hammes explained “it’s difficult in a code enforcement situation to say you can have 12 tents not 15 or three bags of trash not four [...] but we saw a proliferation of conditions and that’s the point we said we have to put a stop to this.”
Hammes said his division collaborated with the office of community development and CSPD but that the call was ultimately his — not the Mayor’s (though some have voiced speculation about top-down pressure coming from the executive who pushed for the sit-lie ordinance and plans to propose a new measure outlawing panhandling on medians).
CSPD spokesman Lt. Howard Black clarified that the 28 calls for service regarding the camp over the last three weeks became increasingly serious. Assault, theft and drug use have all recently been called in, but only one arrest was made.
Community Development manager Aimee Cox, who has been working on homelessness issues in the city for many years, also emphasized that the camp was unsafe, but conceded “it’s very likely these people will be dispersed back into camp settings on public rights of way.”
With SRM’s forthcoming shelter, there’ll be a total of 488 beds this winter in the city, compared to 463 last year. 234 of those will be “low-barrier,” meaning no sobriety or clean record requirements. The latest Point-In-Time count estimates there’s under 400 chronically homeless adults in the region, but advocates generally agree the real number is likely much higher.
About the obvious shortage, Cox said “there simply is not the capacity in our community right now for somebody to manage another facility.” Exasperated, she added “this isn’t just about a building [...] we need to find long-term solutions so we’re not in crisis mode every winter.”
Advocates worked diligently Wednesday afternoon to find shelter and resources for displaced people, but they worry that now, without a central locus, those in need will be harder to reach. Those wanting to lend a hand can find more information at the Coalition for Compassion and Action’s Facebook page.