The camps along Fountain Creek in southern Colorado have become more visible and more violent in recent months. Colorado Springs city leaders say it'll be weeks before they can address the homeless issue, possibly with a proposed ordinance to ban camping on city land.
To see what it is like living in the camps, KKTV 11 News headed down to the so-called “tent city” when most would head home if they didn't have to be there: after dark.
At 10 p.m. on a Friday night, 11 News reporter Rick Montanez and Photojournalist Vince Autry prepared for their stay.
In the first hour, they sat and talked with Corina. She's been on the streets for months. As she burned trash, newspapers, and some firewood to stay warm, Corina worried about her boyfriend. He’d been missing from the campsite for hours.
"This sucks. He’s usually the life of the party,” she said. It wasn’t until a half hour later when Chris Torrez returned to the camp. He was stumbling and said he was drunk.
Minutes later, Corina says, Chris hit her in the face. Colorado Springs police officers showed up shortly after that, and took Chris away in cuffs. "I need help... please... I'm sorry," begged Chris Torrez as the officers put him in the back of their cruiser.
Brett Iverson, one of three officers in the Homeless Outreach Team (HOT) with the Colorado Springs Police Department, says this is what cops at the homeless camps deal with every night.
“We're short-handed as it is. Our officers are running from call to call to call,” said Iverson. Since December, Colorado Springs police officers have answered about 80 to 90 calls just to the tent cities for panhandling, disturbances and assaults.
"It is taxing on our community to have an officers, several times a day, several times a night, to be going into these homeless areas to check on something that either doesn't exist or maybe shouldn't be there in the first place," said Iverson. He and the rest of the HOT team worry there is a lot more violence in the camps that is going unreported.
11 News learned a homeless man was assaulted a few weeks ago. He was beaten unconscious. "They thought he was dead after they assaulted him, so they tried to roll him up in a tarp and throw him in the creek bed," said Iverson. The man survived, but Iverson says there are many more violent attacks like this. "The homeless live in fear that they might be the next one to be assaulted," added Iverson.
"It's not a safe situation for anybody down there, not for people who go down there and try to do good things, not for people who live there," said Bob Holmes, the executive director for Homeward Pikes Peak. He says a lot of the danger and violence in the camps often stems from the fact that many who live there have some form of a mental illness. The disorders are not always diagnosed or treated properly. "For the people that are severely mentally ill, they sometimes self-medicate with alcohol," said Holmes.
Mental illness is not the only cause for the problems in the camps. Officer Iverson says it's hard for his team to keep track of the criminals who sometimes hide out in the camps. "We do have felons who were arrested for felony assault, felony menacing,” said Iverson. “We've got people with HIV, full blown AIDS, hepatitis C, meningitis. We've got so many issues going on that it's becoming a big concern," Iverson said.
The concerns of homeless assistance groups and the HOT team are being addressed by dozens of other advocates and city leaders as well. They are all working together to find help for those who live in the camps.
"It's going to be a long slow process,” warns Iverson. "Nothing's going to happen overnight, you know, we're not going to go down there and start kicking everybody out and telling them to get their stuff and leave."
Right now, there is no city ordinance to force the campers off the creek beds. It only keeps them from camping in city parks. But next month, the Colorado Springs Police Department will go before the Colorado Springs City Council to present a new ordinance to ban camping on all city land. Advocates and city leaders hope eventually, the homeless numbers will come down, and the tents will follow.
Comprehensive Homeless Assistance Programs (CHAP), like the Springs Rescue Mission and Homeward Pikes Peak, is working on alternative housing options. One new idea that’s just started involves using the El Paso County Detox Center for help with sobriety.
Leaders of CHAP say the homeless community needs to become more accountable for themselves. They think that will not happen until people stop taking donations directly to the camps. Instead, they have asked people to call the United Way at 211 to find out which organizations need donations.
Below is a list of homeless organizations:
Homeward Pikes Peak (719) 955-0731
Catholic Charities of Colorado (719) 475-2347
The Springs Rescue Mission (719) 632-1822
The Salvation Army (719) 636-3891