To start fixing Colorado Springs' homeless problem, it might take a village.
Or, to be more specific, says peace activist Patrick Ayers, it could take a secure, permanent camping spot modeled on Dignity Village, a 40-minute bus ride from downtown Portland, Ore.
Here's the gist of his proposal: Colorado Springs already has hundreds of people camping out on any given night. Finding a good place for them to stay could replace a few dingy camps hidden along waterways with a cleaner, more hygienic arrangement of tents and even permanent structures. And it would be a good way to make sure donations and homeless services find the people who need them most.
OK, but in Colorado Springs?
Before dismissing the idea, consider that City Councilor Jerry Heimlicher has listened to Ayers and believes the idea has potential. Heimlicher goes so far as to imagine a possible site.
"I thought about Dorchester Park," he says, referring to the small, city-owned plot of land next to South Nevada Avenue, just north of Interstate 25. "It's a park that virtually no one goes to who's not homeless."
Since dozens of people already camp out near there anyway, Heimlicher asks, why not make it a safe place for them to do just that?
He acknowledges obstacles: Nearby residents, though there are few in that area, would likely protest, and skeptics have already pointed out that large homeless camps in other places have been overrun with crime and grime. But, he asks, "What's wrong with giving it a try?"
As for Dignity Village (dignityvillage.org), three-year resident Joe Palinkas, reached by telephone, says the Portland experiment is going strong eight years after it was started. Up to 60 people live on less than two fenced-in acres, where residents share the load of providing security and keeping the property free of drugs and alcohol. Many tents have been replaced with more permanent structures, and the site has a shower and portable toilets to keep the area clean.
Though it costs a relatively small $40,000 a year, Palinkas says he's heard all about the obstacles Portland faced trying to find a place to put the village.
"The first thing people bitch and moan about," he says, "is that they don't want homeless people in their backyard."