Everyone sees something different in Tent City.
For Dee Cunningham, it's the mess.
The executive director of Keep Colorado Springs Beautiful, Cunningham is responsible for leading cleanups of the trash that some homeless people leave behind. As she clearly demonstrates on video, the disaster can be quite surreal — huge garbage piles stacked several feet deep, drug needles, weapons and abandoned make-do toilets. Since April, her group has collected more than 540 cubic yards of trash from the camps.
Greg Morris, director of and a physician's assistant for Peak Vista Homeless Health Center, sees something else: people ignoring their health.
Morris tends to folks with uncontrolled blood pressure, seizures and untreated diabetes. When the weather gets dangerously cold, he'll treat severe frostbite, sometimes requiring amputation. And, of course, mental illness and substance abuse are huge problems that often go unchecked.
The police will tell you they see yet another problem with Tent City: crime and conflict.
When the homeless leave the camps and head downtown, there are complaints from business owners who say aggressive panhandling and even just the presence of so many homeless people cut into their bottom line. Homeowners and residents using parks and trails aren't too friendly to the camps, either.
There's reason for the disdain: Camps aren't always safe, not even for the people living in them. Police receive an average of 1,800 calls involving the homeless within a one-mile radius around Cimarron Street and Interstate 25 every six months. There have been beatings and sexual assaults in the camps. Once, police found a campfire next to an industrial gas tank.
Connie Allen, a coordinator for the homeless-serving Resource Advocacy Program, says she worries particularly about the increase in women — who are vulnerable to attack — in the camps.
"The last six months," Allen says, "it's really gotten worse."
Connecting the dots
Homeless advocates feel discouraged that people staying in camps often aren't connecting with services that could get them off the streets. Recently, at City Council's request, police presented their solution: Pass an ordinance that makes camping illegal on city public property. The police said they had no plans to put the homeless in jail, and that they'd use the ordinance with discretion, booting only those who repeatedly refused services.
Council wasn't warm to the idea.
"The notion of conditional compassion is foreign to me," Vice Mayor Larry Small said. "I don't think we have the right to say, 'I'll help you if you become what I want you to become.'"
Both Small and Councilor Tom Gallagher spoke of having been homeless before, and sympathized with the plight of those in Tent City.
"I don't see any benefit to kicking people when they're down," Gallagher said.
Council sent the police and homeless service providers back to the drawing board. A few days later, the Comprehensive Homeless Assistance Providers Taskforce (CHAP), a coalition of more than two dozen homeless service organizations, met at Pikes Peak United Way to decide what can be done for a homeless population that has exploded to an estimated 2,500 individuals.
Numerous agencies, individuals and churches are helping the homeless, from the Street Church to the Haven House. They provide food and clothes, and even multiple programs for treating drug and alcohol abuse, addressing mental health issues and providing medical appointments, transitional and low-income housing, and rental and utilities assistance. There are even multiple services that help the homeless find other services.
The trouble, agencies agree, is that there's very little organization. CHAP has set another meeting to discuss coordinating outreach to camps. Their goal: Instead of random visitors handing out everything from socks to pizzas, they'd like those who offer medical care, mental health care and other services to do so together.
Other ideas are on the horizon, such as day shelters, warm areas where homeless can hang out and look for jobs. There's also support for more night shelter options such as "sobering beds," a step between the regular shelter and detox.
"You got people who say, 'I can't go to the shelter because I drink,'" notes Homeward Pikes Peak leader Bob Holmes.
But longtime homeless advocate Steve Handen cautions that there likely isn't a single solution to the housing problem because of differing needs. The Springs could probably use more apartments, group homes, recovery programs and specialized care facilities.
"There isn't any one size fits all to this thing," he says.
The homeless can currently go to R.J. Montgomery New Hope Center for a 14-day stay. If they make progress in changing their lives, they can continue living there. If not, they're out for about three months.
The center makes exceptions for cold nights and days, when it opens its doors, no questions asked. Springs Rescue Mission has some extra space available if the shelter overflows on frigid nights.
"You have to have some place where it begins," says Don Gilger, Salvation Army's county coordinator, as he leads me around the shelter. "This is it."
The center is clean and tidy, with bunks and lockers and, sadly, quite a few cribs. There's some family housing out back, and a day care/play area for kids. On this morning, a dad is playing with two little ones younger than 3.
With women and kids running around, the shelter can't take sex offenders, or the belligerently drunk or high. It also can't accept pets, or allow couples to sleep together. The shelter can't take folks needing bedside medical assistance — but there are beds for the sick, if they can help themselves.
The Salvation Army has programs, as does Springs Rescue Mission, Liza's Place, Housing First and many others.
But all these programs have requirements. The biggest one is a commitment. And asking for a commitment is tough when you can't get a person to take a first step.
A week later: Denise
One week to the day, I get the call.
It's Denise Lierly. Time's up. She's preparing to move out of the motel. And back on to the streets.
Her voice weak, she tells me that she has two job interviews scheduled today. And they're jobs she thinks she could get. If only she had some place to put her dog, Drake, this afternoon.
I call Homeward Pikes Peak executive director Bob Holmes. But with a full day planned, he's too busy to help with this one. He tells me to call Connie Allen, a coordinator for the homeless-serving Resource Advocacy Program.
I reach Allen a few minutes later, and tell her the story. She knows whom I'm talking about before I mention Denise's name.
When the HOT team dropped Denise off at the motel, they told her to call Allen right away. But Denise waited until her last day in the motel to meet with Allen. Even so, Allen says she offered to find a place to watch Drake for a few hours, or even a few months. That way, Denise could have gotten into a shelter, gotten a job, and gotten her and Drake into a permanent home.
"She just wasn't ready," Allen tells me with a sigh.
A lot of people on the streets have emotional issues that must be overcome in order to move forward, Allen explains. And that's true for Denise, who finds comfort in her dog and can't bear to part with him, even for a short time.
Helping the homeless isn't always easy, Allen says, even with someone like Denise, who has a lot of skills and potential.
"Eventually, we will get her where she wants to go," Allen says. "I just hope she'll come in again [soon]."