Editor's note: We first talked to Royal James — who doesn't want his real last name used — for "Ground control," a story in the issue of May 7, 2009. After 18 months, and many changes for the homeless community, we checked in with him again.
He called it Ezekiel's Meadow because it was sacred to him. In his world, the small animal bones strewn here were alive with protective energy, the ground was rich with treasure, and he was here, not because he was broken, but because he was living the life God wished for him. Every time he mediated a fight, helped a newcomer into an extra tent or dug through his supplies to feed the hungry, he knew why he was here.
This was Royal James' Walden.
Officer Dan McCormack first stumbled into the creekside camp southeast of downtown in August 2009, and every mouth clamped shut. Then he saw James, the tent city's self-proclaimed mayor, his fingers strumming his guitar, the strings somehow working without being pinned in.
"I said, 'How are you keeping those guitar strings in?'" McCormack remembers. "He said, 'Magic.'"
However unwittingly, James taught McCormack, a member of the Colorado Springs Police Department's three-man Homeless Outreach Team, how to connect with street people. After seeing James, McCormack bought him strings and pins for his guitar.
James accepted this peace offering, and McCormack's been buying James' strings ever since.
Of course, this friendship had its strains. Last winter, after Colorado Springs City Council passed an ordinance that outlawed sleeping on public lands, the HOT team was charged with clearing out camps like Ezekiel's Meadow — gently, if possible. Hundreds of people were moved into shelters, programs or the homes of family and friends. Today, Homeward Pikes Peak executive director Bob Holmes says, approximately 180 remain on the streets, and the HOT Team continues to relocate them.
The ordinance never sat right with Royal.
"[I'm] deeply ashamed of City Council's decision," he says, "deeply ashamed of the city for letting it ride."
For a while after the law passed, Royal was obstinate, telling the officers they could drag him from Ezekiel's if they wanted him gone. But he decided it wasn't worth the fight.
He moved in with a friend last March.
Around 15 years ago, James says, he had an electronics job in Florida, supporting a wife and two adolescent daughters. But he and his wife broke it off and she moved away to find herself. He stayed with his girls for two years until his wife rang. She had a new husband in New York with plenty of money, and she wanted the girls with her.
The girls wanted to go, and James always felt they needed their mom. They left.
"A silence descended on my house I wasn't prepared for," he remembers. "And I ended up having to do Xanax for a while."
James also did booze. Until one day, when he watched a mosquito suck his blood and wondered if the mosquito was getting drunk, too. Suddenly it dawned on him. He had no job. No family. And he was living in his home state of Florida, which he always hated.
He moved to Colorado Springs, a city he remembered fondly from visits in the '70s when he was stationed at Lowry Air Force Base in Denver.
It was 1997, and James was ready for a fresh start. But he didn't want to work for anyone. So he stayed at a girlfriend's house for about seven years, playing music, working odd jobs. And after that, Ezekiel's.
James concedes his struggles with drug addiction, but he says that's not why he stayed at the camp.
"What I loved about it was, I was useful," he says. "People needed me."
He remembers helping one unemployed man with a 13-year-old daughter. They needed a place to stay, and he gave them a tent. The next year, the little family (now back on their feet) brought him a ham for Christmas.
He smiles. Yeah, he says, that young girl reminded him of his girls.
"Everyone's daughters," he says, "remind me of my daughters. ... The past chases me, just like it does a lot of people."
In a YouTube video, Royal strums his guitar. He's singing about everywhere he's been, all the things he was, and at the end he sings, "I'll never know just how it feels to come home to a home I know I'll never find in this world."
Over the years, Royal wrote letters to his daughters, but didn't mail them. He always feared his girls felt he abandoned them. He was scared to call. Scared to write.
But when the HOT team told him his eldest was trying to reach him, he finally picked up the phone. He learned he had a 4-year-old granddaughter, and the daughter he hadn't spoken to in 15-odd years still loved him. In fact, she wanted him back.
"We never felt you abandoned us," Royal remembers her telling him. "Mom walked out on you and then, to stab in you in the heart more, we left."
Royal has tears in his eyes. Next month, he'll be on a bus to New York (courtesy of the HOT team). He's finally got his family back.
And he'll be home just in time for Christmas.