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Trash and trash-talking derail community conversation about homelessness

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Allen Schmidt, 53, is sober and frustrated. - NAT STEIN
  • Nat Stein
  • Allen Schmidt, 53, is sober and frustrated.

The Pikes Peak Greenway trail runs through the entire city from the Northside to the Southside. But, the trail also runs through Colorado Springs on a psychic level, connecting everyone who makes use of it through the shared experience of public space.

The trail offers access to everyone: walkers, joggers, bikers, tourists, artists, scientists, cops, cleanup crews and, yes, homeless people. Homeless people have long made the trail their home. The creekside location is conveniently close to downtown service providers and accessible for street outreach workers. Not to mention it's (relatively) secluded, with (absolutely) prime sunsets.

Some camp alone, some in small groups, and some with dozens or even hundreds. The group sites draw attention. Clusters of tents, visible from Interstate 25, can be downright startling to passersby on the trail. "Normies" (homeless slang for people who live indoors) who notice the camps have mixed reactions, but there seems to be a negative correlation between the amount of trash on the trail and amount of sympathy for those who put it there.

That dynamic recently played out in public (albeit on a digital forum). After a weekend bike ride on the Greenway, Independent publisher Carrie Simison posted photos on her personal Facebook and Instagram accounts of trash piles she encountered, along with a post that, among other comments, asked her network of friends, "How do we fix this? What is the solution that cares for all the people and the property?"

The seemingly innocuous post provoked a rash of rants. Many commenters voiced similar dismay, offering to help with upcoming cleanups. Most expressed concern for both the environment and people living in unfortunate circumstances. Some, however, called homeless people "lazy bums" unworthy of pity. Others lashed back, accusing anyone perceived to care more about trash than about humans of callousness and ignorance. All told, the post racked up nearly 200 heated comments on Facebook alone, many from prominent community members with reputations to maintain.

So, what do we do about all this ugliness?

The ensuing fallout from Simison's post happened to coincide with the scheduled eviction of a camp located under Martin Luther King Bypass, off I-25. About a week prior, the Sheriff's Office set a Feb. 14 deadline for people living there to clear out so a contracted crew could clean up. Posted warnings listed trespassing, littering and camping as potential violations that could nail anyone who didn't comply.

Homeless campers set up at this spot on the trail after moving along from property belonging to Springs Rescue Mission, a major nearby service provider, where the last mass encampment was temporarily tolerated but ultimately evicted in mid-October.

SRM opened a shelter with 168 new beds in late November. It's been running under but near capacity, according to spokesperson Thomas Voss, who adds that sleeping mats on the floor are sometimes offered so nobody is turned away. Beds at the local Salvation Army shelter carry more strict rules and are therefore rarely, if ever, full.

Under the MLK bridge, one camper packing up on Feb. 14, Allen Schmidt, 53, explained he prefers staying outside because he's gotten bed bugs at a shelter before and doesn't like being packed in like a sardine. But camping with fellow shelter abstainers impinges on his freedom in other ways.

"I live here, this is my home and I don't like a trashy mess so I end up cleaning like five times a day," he tells the Indy, squinting from under his baseball cap. "But, it's these tweekers and these drunks who move in here who don't care — they'll just throw their trash everywhere. Then it kicks us too, because now we all have to move."

Schmidt is the "grandpa" of a street family that sticks together. The "baby" is Christine Hulshof, a 19-year-old transgender runaway. "You can see here whose spots are clean and whose are dirty," she says, gesturing to the various clusters of tents. Some, located deeper under the bridge, are preserved in their abandonment, suggesting their former tenants just up and left behind this mix of possessions and detritus. Other camps, like the one that's home to this pair's "family," are carefully broken down and dealt with piece by piece.

That nuance may not come through second-hand. KOAA's report that aired later that evening contained footage shot about a half-mile away from the MLK bridge, featuring a ravine so utterly trashed it's hard to make out the nature beneath. Conversely, a video produced and promoted by ardent homeless advocate Trig Bundgaard of Blackbird Outreach features a kind woman in a wheelchair on tidily swept ground. Both depictions are accurate, in a sense, yet neither captures the real complexity.

Pastor Ehrich Hurst felt called to help, so he co-founded a street ministry that started doing regular outreach in the fall. He's relatively new to the scene and already baffled by the dysfunction.

Through conversations, Hurst has learned there's both not enough and too much of what people need. "It's survival stuff they ask for, like batteries, flashlights and trash bags," he says, emphasizing, "Most ask for trash bags!" But, he says, people sometimes receive too much stuff — clothes, food, toys, etc. — with no way to dispose of it. That contributes to the buildup.

The buildup is removed by volunteers with Keep Colorado Springs Beautiful — a nonprofit that does contract cleanups for the city, earning equal parts flak and praise. Dee Cunningham has led that group for more than two decades, getting her hands dirty with each job. "I've never seen so much stuff down there," she says. "We haul out tons of garbage. Tons. So if people want to make me out as some kind of villain, that's fine, but we don't decide when to enforce the law on these camps."

Indeed, the El Paso County Sheriff's Office initiated the eviction of the MLK camp that was spread over county, Colorado Springs Utilities and Colorado Department of Transportation land.

Responding to criticism that the cat-and-mouse approach to cleanup isn't efficient or sustainable, Cunningham insists that regular trash removal services for people living on the trail wouldn't work. "They turn the metal trash cans into fire pits," she says. "I'm not saying all homeless people do that, but those who do, do."

But that's not why there are no trash cans on the Greenway. There are none on any city-maintained trails, according to city parks manager Kurt Schroeder. "We just don't have the time or capacity to service them like we ought to, so they'd just create overflow," he says, adding, "We expect people to pack-it-in, pack-it-out." That said, he's all ears if someone wants to pay for and take care of a dumpster on the trail.

All this trash-related drama does is sow division among people who otherwise share the same goal: to end homelessness in Colorado Springs. But ending the present cycle would mean acknowledging people need somewhere to move along to. Right now, we don't have enough housing available to people who want to get off the streets.

The city's community development manager, Aimee Cox, says, "People need to understand the type of housing we need most is very difficult to provide." That's permanent supportive housing, for people with no or low income and disabling factors like mental illness or addiction. Wrap-around services like counseling are built in.

There are currently under 600 units of that kind of housing in the Springs and they're all full. Openings are rare. (To put that in perspective, Albequerque has 1,400-plus units.) Cox says an ongoing housing survey shows that right now, about 250 homeless people need that kind of housing and hundreds more need other types of transitional or subsidized housing. "We need to be honest that we just don't have the capacity," she says, "And we can't solve the problem with vitriol or bleeding hearts. We have to be compassionate, but we also need to be smart and pragmatic about working together."

Cox is hopeful that a forthcoming 65-unit permanent supportive housing complex developed in a partnership of Nor'wood Development Group and Springs Rescue Mission can prove that a facility of that type can help people get off and stay off the streets. That project is slated for completion less than two years from now, but much like SRM's shelter expansion, it will meet some, not all, of the need.

Recognizing that much-needed capacity is still far off, the Coalition for Compassion and Action, parent organization of Blackbird Outreach, wants to create an emergency sanctuary encampment with trash pickup, bathrooms and possessions storage. But it hasn't found the right site yet.

That means there's no imminent reprieve for folks like Hulshof, the 19-year-old camper who will still struggle to find temporary housing that could, in turn, allow her to find a job and would enable her to save enough to rent her own place.

No stranger to harsh reality, Hulshof is giving up on this city but not on herself. She plans to head to the Oregon coast, build a sailboat and sail to Hawaii. Maybe, when she returns, we can greet her with adequate housing rather than trash squabbles.

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