After a couple months living in a tent city near Cimarron and Eighth streets, Magi Spence knows what's up with her neighbors.
A few hard-core substance abusers want to be camping, she says, while many are trying to find jobs or subsidized apartments. One woman recently became so desperate that she tried to check into the county detox facility.
The only problem: She hadn't been drinking.
"There's nowhere to go," Spence says.
Nevertheless, city leaders plan to soon discuss a proposed camping ban to thin the tangled undergrowth of tents cropping up along Fountain Creek, Monument Creek and other undeveloped spots in the city. It strikes the 60-year-old Spence as absurd, if predictable.
"If they clean out the camps, where are they going to go?" she asks.
It's not an idle question. Cmdr. Kurt Pillard oversees the police department's Gold Hill division, which covers much of the city's prime camping along Fountain Creek. Pillard hears complaints daily about creekside paths that are starting to look like dumping grounds, but he acknowledges banning camping is not a complete solution.
"The housing that's available couldn't possibly meet the demand," Pillard says.
Unless it's cold and snowy, when some churches and charities open their doors, the main sheltering option is the Salvation Army's New Hope Center at 709 S. Sierra Madre St., which often fills its 200 beds. (A few dozen more may squeeze in when the weather's bad.)
Police recently counted 163 tents along the creek from Dorchester Park to Marian House Soup Kitchen. When you factor in other hotspots along Shooks Run and Fountain Creek west into Manitou Springs, the number of campers easily reaches into the hundreds.
Even if New Hope had room for everyone, it would still turn away anyone drunk or stoned, leaving homeless advocates looking for an alternative.
Bob Holmes, director of Homeward Pikes Peak, a nonprofit that coordinates local homeless services, favors creating a "sobering bed" facility, where inebriated homeless folks could get a safe night's sleep.
There's also growing buzz about creating a permanent designated camping spot for the homeless, like Dignity Village in Portland ("A different idea — and success story," cover story, June 18, 2009). But both ideas are months or years from reality.
Officers with the city's Homeless Outreach team say a no-camping ordinance, if adopted, will be a "tool" to nudge campers who need medical help in to care, or those who cause the most trouble toward drug-rehab or counseling services.
Pillard explains that officers would focus on the worst cases, but no campers would get a free pass: "They'd be placed on notice that what they are doing is illegal."
The city suspended efforts last year to clean up campsites amid threats of a lawsuit from homeless residents who said they'd lost important documents and other valuables in sweeps.
Back then, campsites were spread out and inconspicuous. On a recent morning alongside Fountain Creek from Eighth Street to Dorchester Park, the area felt like a national forest campground on a holiday weekend. Dozens of campsites were outfitted with gas grills, fire rings and the occasional couch.
Some campers, like Spence, were unaware of the proposed no-camping ordinance. But it petrifies Penny Adams, camped farther down Fountain Creek on a slope just below Interstate 25.
"I don't have anywhere else to go," she says, explaining that camping out gives her a sense of independence and freedom that she can't find in a shelter or program. "We're not just camping out; we live here."