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Street stories, Chapter 2



A year ago, Ric Bascobert intervened when an older neighbor was threatened outside her west-side home by a belligerent drunk.

"She was out on the sidewalk with this little miniature bat in her hand, just shaking it," Bascobert remembers. "She was in her robe."

Things haven't improved since then in that neighborhood, near Colorado Avenue and 29th Street. In recent months, Bascobert has witnessed naked men bathing in creeks and urinating in flower pots; he's watched bonfires rage ominously close to his property. Just a few days ago, he called the cops after hearing what sounded like three gunshots behind his home.

Bascobert's partner, Robin Jones, has also noticed changes in the neighborhood. She says strange men scream at her when she goes outside, and she often sees people passed out in the street. She's scared to walk her dogs.

These problems have emanated from one small patch of city land near a creek bed — an overgrown oasis steps away from a liquor store, and close to low-income housing often used by the poor and formerly homeless. It just happens to be behind and slightly east of Bascobert's house.

"It's been an eyesore since I've lived here, but it's been easy to tolerate when it was just two people," says Bascobert, who's lived in his home seven years. "But, at this point, it's just totally grown."

Specifically, it's grown to parties of 20-plus people.

Welcome to Chapter 2 of Colorado Springs' homeless dilemma.

Cowboy camping

Officer Brett Iverson treads down a steep path, past old pillows, bottles and plastic bags.

Wearing shorts and a T-shirt, Iverson doesn't exactly fit the profile of a tough-guy cop. And he doesn't want to. As a member of the Colorado Springs Police Department's Homeless Outreach Team (HOT Team), he's tasked with connecting with the homeless and helping them find a way off the streets — not to be a bully.

At the bottom of the hill, Iverson strikes up a conversation with a man sitting by a tree. Iverson tells him that police are trying to get this spot cleaned up. The man, who doesn't want to be identified, says he understands and even picks up some of the trash.

Like a lot of people who visit the spot behind Bascobert's home, this man isn't homeless. He lives on the east side, but says he comes here to see friends.

"I know a lot of them who come down here," the man says. "Some of them are just kind of diehard, I guess. Some people you just can't give a place to or help out, because they're not going to accept it."

Last winter, the Colorado Springs City Council passed a no-camping ordinance and instructed the HOT Team to get 500-plus homeless campers into shelters and treatment programs. At the time, "tent cities" had sprung up along creek beds, spreading trash and raw sewage. While some campers had long been homeless, many were recent victims of the recession.

The recently homeless proved easiest to help. Most were willing to go into shelters and programs, and more than 100 eventually found jobs. Those go-getters were markedly different from those who still camp behind Bascobert's home.

"These were the guys that would sit in the [shelter] room and drink all day," Iverson says. "They wouldn't be out looking for a job. They wouldn't keep their place clean. They're also the ones that we continue to contact and they say, 'This is how I want to live.'"

With the no-camping ordinance in place, many of the 100 to 160 current homeless people are "cowboy campers," sleeping in a spot only for one night, then moving elsewhere. Scans of creek beds, where tent cities used to be, show large-scale camps aren't coming back, Iverson says. The permanent camps that do exist tend to be small, like the one near Bascobert's home. Problem is, friends and acquaintances often stop by for parties and drinking.

So while the camps are small, the nuisance can be big. Just ask Bascobert, who's fed up with calling police repeatedly for a problem that's literally in his backyard.

Recently, Keep Colorado Springs Beautiful cleaned up that camp, dragging out couches and trash. Bascobert was hopeful the scene would die out. But that same night, he says, the revelers returned.

Proactive policing

People like Bascobert are often initially dismayed that police have yet to hand out a single ticket for violating the no-camping ordinance, and that they hesitate to drag homeless partiers to jail. But as HOT Team Officer M.J. Thomson explains, "It does no good to come out and write tickets, and write tickets, and write tickets. All it does is clog the system."

In fact, he says, one $60 ticket often turns into a 10-night stay in jail and court appearances, which can easily cost taxpayers $1,500. And once a homeless person is released, he often goes right back to his old ways.

So the HOT Team employs other methods. Recently, at the camp behind Bascobert's house, the team sent one man to the county's detox facility to sober up. Two others were set up with a housing program, and one will soon get a bus pass to another city. One man was actually sent to jail, on warrants.

In addition to hands-on work, the HOT Team has plans to make this area less attractive to campers by mowing down brush, possibly adding lighting, and talking to the owner of nearby Springs Liquor to ensure he isn't selling to obviously intoxicated people — a violation that could cost him his license.

The HOT Team's methods, while unconventional, have a tendency to work. The team has helped more than 570 individuals find shelter and reunited more than 145 people with families out of state. Since it began hitting the streets, at least 105 once-homeless people have become self-sufficient, and more than 130 have gotten jobs.

The team, which also includes Officer Dan McCormack, is one of six finalists for the prestigious international Herman Goldstein Award for Excellence in Problem-Oriented Policing, which rewards cops who find proactive solutions to community issues. The winner will be named at the end of the month.

Bob Holmes, leader of the umbrella agency Homeward Pikes Peak, says he's proud of what the HOT Team and the city's homeless agencies have done. But he's also aware that the problem won't disappear, even if the headlines do.

During last winter's crisis, Holmes secured funding to keep homeless in hotels, most recently the Aztec Motel on Platte Avenue. With a roof over their heads and case workers' help, hundreds started over again. Now, Holmes is scrambling to find housing for the 56 people still at the Aztec. Funding for that program expires Oct. 15.

Consider it the end of a chapter in the fight against homelessness in the city, and the beginning of a new chapter where victories won't come as easily.

"These are the more hardcore homeless," Iverson says. "It's just takes more time and effort, that's what we're finding. Because there's a few of them that have been like that, that we're now turning around, little by little."

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