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Users worry about safety on urban trails, but police say most violence is among homeless

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Allen Beauchamp, the bicycle initiatives coordinator for Bike Colorado Springs, wishes everyone felt comfortable using the city’s trail system for recreation and transportation, but understands safety concerns. - FAITH MILLER
  • Faith Miller
  • Allen Beauchamp, the bicycle initiatives coordinator for Bike Colorado Springs, wishes everyone felt comfortable using the city’s trail system for recreation and transportation, but understands safety concerns.
Allen Beauchamp, a towering figure in the Colorado Springs cycling community, occasionally enjoys playing music while he rides. On one mild August morning, “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)” blasts from the small speaker in the basket of his 
PikeRide bicycle.

Over 6 feet tall and solidly built, with tufts of silver chest hair sprouting from his collar, Beauchamp, the bicycle initiatives coordinator for Bike Colorado Springs, doesn’t worry much about safety threats on the city’s network of trails. But it’s frustrating to him that some people do, including a fellow member of the Colorado Springs Cycling Club.

“Because of perceived safety issues — and real feelings of being unsafe — this 120-plus miles of trails, she won’t even go out on [alone],” Beauchamp says. “And that’s sad to me, for somebody to live here and not be able to use the trail system.”

Among outdoor enthusiasts, on social media and even in City Hall, tension is building around the city’s burgeoning homeless population. Some say the increase in camps has kept the enthusiasts away from trails and parks, fearing for their safety. Others say there’s little to fear from the city’s most needy citizens, and the trails are safe.

There is no doubt that more people are homeless in the Springs. The annual Point-in-Time headcount, conducted on one day in January each year, found that Colorado Springs’ 2018 unsheltered homeless population was up 12.2 percent from 2017, with a total of 513 people this year (though the Point-in-Time is considered an undercount). On the night of the count, all of Springs Rescue Mission’s 300 low-barrier shelter beds were full.

The creekside camping ordinance, which City Council passed in July to ban camping within 100 feet of waterways, was touted by many who use the trail system to exercise, spend time outside or get to work.

“We need to remove these people from recreational areas,” one mountain biker said at an emotionally charged town hall meeting June 14 to discuss the ordinance. “We have ... kids riding on trails where there are drug addicts.”

“I came home [from walking my dogs] and I said, never again, I don’t feel safe,” a Westside resident said.

Judy Fellhauer has coached the Women’s Fit Team, sponsored by specialty running store Runners Roost, since 2009. While she won’t go to the extreme of avoiding trails altogether, she told the Independent her runners have changed their routes for safety reasons over the years — mostly, she says, because of more homeless people camping or loitering near the trails.

“Before the last few years ... we’d feel really safe and go wherever we felt like going,” Fellhauer says. “People would run alone, they would not fear anything, but now no one runs alone that I know of.”
Statistics provided by the Colorado Springs Police Department do show an overall increase in reported assaults in areas within 250 feet of “known camping locations, urban trails and urban parks” between 2015 and 2017. But that increase is not statistically significant, says Police Crime Analyst Andrew Dukes, because there are too few incidents to determine whether the slight increase was random or represented an upward trend.

In 2017, there were a total of 18 aggravated assaults (felonies involving serious injuries or weapons) in these locations, not including crimes that occurred at private residences and businesses. That’s an increase from eight in 2016 and seven in 2015. There were 19 simple assault cases (misdemeanors that could include minor injuries, touching or threatening behavior) compared with seven in 2016 and eleven in 2015.

The majority of violent crime near camps — which also included 10 
robberies and five rapes over the three years — was centered near and around the South Nevada Avenue/Interstate 25 and Dorchester Park areas, according to the department’s Strategic Information Center.

In its analysis, the department only looked at locations with more than one incident, Dukes said in an email. He added that without examining crimes on a case-by-case basis, it’s hard to tell whether they occurred on the trail system or just outside it.

Crime isn’t the only safety issue with camps — many are littered with hazardous waste. Dee Cunningham, the executive director of Keep Colorado Springs Beautiful, told the Indy in June that her staff and volunteers picked up at least 500 discarded syringes a month in camps and on trails. It’s also feared — but not confirmed — that above-standard levels of E. coli in the Fountain Creek watershed are caused by campers’ fecal matter. And illegal campfires threaten nearby homes and businesses when they get out of control.

Cruising down the Pikes Peak 
Greenway, Beauchamp stops his bike in front of a pickup truck parked on the trail. He points out the workers there trimming vegetation, presumably to improve sight-lines for trail users.

Farther up the trail, a police car is parked on the grass — possibly a member of the Homeless Outreach Team enforcing the camping ban or “sit-lie” ordinance.

Lt. Michael Lux oversees the police department’s HOT team, made up of officers who regularly visit homeless camps near the trails and attempt to connect people with resources. They also enforce the law, which means giving people 24 hours notice to move if they’re camping in a public space and there are shelter beds available.

Lux says most of the violent crimes that he’s seen along trails are homeless-on-homeless violence — he can’t recall a specific instance of a homeless person attacking a passerby.

“We’re not seeing a rash of people running by, or people cycling, and all of a sudden getting knocked off their bikes, or getting hit while they’re running on the trail,” Lux says. “[What] we do see ... is they get violent against each other.”

Though Fellhauer, the runner, says she’s experienced obscene jeers, been witness to indecent exposure, and doesn’t use park restrooms for fear of getting cornered in the building, she, like Lux, doesn’t personally know anyone who’s actually been assaulted on the trail.
The Colorado Springs Police Department - regularly connects with homeless people - camping or loitering near the trail system. - ALLEN BEAUCHAMP
  • Allen Beauchamp
  • The Colorado Springs Police Departmentregularly connects with homeless peoplecamping or loitering near the trail system.
That doesn’t stop her from generally avoiding trails south of Cache La Poudre Street out of safety concerns, even on group runs with the 100-member Women’s Fit Team.

“It’s just the fear of [an attack], I guess, and the fear of not knowing if this person is mentally ill or if they’re on drugs or if they’re a criminal,” Fellhauer says. “We’re afraid of the character of some of the people that are out there that look a little, I don’t know. Kind of scary.”

Lux agrees that people should exercise caution and be wary of unusual appearances, but he’s disappointed some people don’t feel safe on the trail system.

“If a person looks, with a shopping cart full of a bunch of their goods and they look disheveled, [someone else] might feel a little uncomfortable, running by them,” Lux says. “I would like to fix it, but I can’t tell people, ‘Dress more appropriately,’ or ‘Fit into society better’... It’s just not the way we do things.”

People experiencing homelessness live in a constant state of fear themselves, says Shawna Kemppainen, the executive director of Urban Peak, a nonprofit serving homeless youths.

“A person who is outside 
vulnerable to weather conditions, without privacy and without a locked door to go behind, they’re highly vulnerable,” Kemppainen says, and they are “susceptible to getting in the cycle of escalations and violence.”

That’s especially true, she adds, for unhoused youths in their teens and early 20s — many of whom feel safer outside than in shelters, where they fear victimization by adults.

Beauchamp says his strategy is to greet everyone he encounters on the trails, even people who look intimidating. “I think if you engage people, they’re a little less scary,” he says, acknowledging that his physical characteristics give him an advantage when it comes to safety. He projects a jolly greeting at a fellow trail user, someone Beauchamp gathers is experiencing homelessness. The man replies cordially.

Beauchamp stops in an underpass where decorative fish designs adorn the walls. Piles of trash, likely left by campers, rest along the path. He points out the small black boxes at the roof of the tunnel. Such lights, he says, are integral to trail safety.

Kurt Schroeder, the city’s park operations and development manager, agrees. “In many instances we’ll try to light those underpasses so someone can ... feel better when they’re going under those bridges and the like,” he says, adding that regular maintenance, such as cutting down vegetation next to the trails, is also important.

The biggest safety issues on trails usually arise from the way average trail users conduct themselves, and not aggressiveness from people living outside, says Susan Davies, executive director of the Trails and Open Space Coalition.

“Do we believe our trail system is probably safe? Yes,” Davies says. “We think that there’s probably more of a problem with people not following good trail etiquette and keeping their speeds under control, and staying to the right and ringing their bell on their bikes when they’re passing somebody.”

Travis Williams, chief development officer at Springs Rescue Mission, says that instead of avoiding the trails because of the people who frequent them, a cyclist or runner could try striking up a conversation.

“Any time you see something that is outside of your normal, everyday routine, it can come across as scary,” Williams says. “Where it’s appropriate to engage somebody who looks different, thinks different, whether that’s along the trail or any place in the community, downtown — once you get past the initial façade you start to ... understand the basic humanness of us all.”

Kemppainen agrees, and says the focus should be on solutions like low-barrier housing options. City officials hope to add 300 shelter beds this winter, while Urban Peak has a low-barrier drop-in center for youths in the works.

“If we can step back and treat people, again, with dignity and as if they are members of our community and they belong, then we can try to move forward. And let’s help people take those steps ... that lead them off the trail instead of blaming them for being there.”

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