Sanctioned homeless camps are controversial stopgap solution

Crystal Jackson, 34, shows a piece of paper that mandated that she appear in court for camping on public property dated back from March 2018 on Tuesday April 3, 2018 in Colorado Springs. (Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette).

COLORADO SPRINGS — One municipality-blessed tent city sprouted seven years ago in the back lot of a New Mexico nonprofit, where more than 800 people have slept at one point or another ever since.

Another started as a way to limit police sweeps in Seattle, and it has since evolved into a series of tiny house villages.

And a third, in San Diego, existed only about three months – just long enough for a nonprofit to build a bona fide shelter.

Now, amid a drumbeat of police sweeps and concerns of a shelter shortage, a small but vocal group of local homeless advocates are pushing for El Paso County to join the list of communities allowing sanctioned encampments for people experiencing homelessness.

Trig Bundgaard, of the nonprofit Blackbird Outreach and the Coalition for Compassion and Action, called it an important measure at a time when police-led cleanups of illegal homeless camps are on the rise, and affordable housing remains in dire need.

“It’s an obvious and critical stopgap,” Bundgaard said. “If you don’t have enough shelter or housing, and you make being homeless illegal, you’re essentially dooming people to suffer, if not die.”

Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers framed such encampments as “an absolute disaster in terms of public safety” during a forum on homelessness earlier this year.

Suthers’ point man on homelessness, Andrew Phelps, added last week that other solutions could be more effective.

“Providing shelter for people provides them with the dignity that they deserve, not just letting them camp outside,” said Phelps, the city’s homeless prevention and response coordinator. “I’m really trying to get more shelter bed capacity. And in the end … permanent supportive housing is the answer for ending homelessness in our city.”

It all comes amid a growing, nationwide debate on the ethics and efficacy of sanctioned homeless camps, especially as more cities face affordable housing shortages and crackdowns on rogue encampments.

Some argue the sanctioned camps are tantamount to surrender for cities attempting to address homelessness, while distracting or sapping energy from longer-term solutions, such as the creation of more affordable housing.

Others suggest they act as a stabilizing environment, giving homeless campers a better shot at working their way off the streets. In this scenario, the city or responsible agency provides or contracts for supportive services, including showers, toilets and food, as well as access to care and a path to housing, said Eric Tars, senior attorney for the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty.

For years, the Washington, D.C.-based law center opposed the creation of such camps, arguing they essentially condone homelessness.

But that recently changed.

“The long-term goal always has to be fully adequate housing for everybody,” Tars said. “But recognizing that that will take time, in the meantime, if encampments are part of a continuum of options that a city offers and they’re done well, then they can serve a constructive role.”

Tars said he remains “uncomfortable” with the concept, even if it’s becoming increasingly necessary in some cities as a stopgap measure.

“We all should feel very uncomfortable with that, because it represents a failure on the part of our entire society to ensure even the most basic emergency shelter for our human citizens,” Tars said.

“But we have (failed),” he added, “And in that context, this could be a harm-reduction strategy while we take the steps to solve the larger problems.”

Local debateThe Pikes Peak Continuum of Care, which coordinates many local nonprofits, is taking an “observational” approach to Bundgaard’s push, said Beth Roalstad, the coalition’s chairwoman. The organization is examining other cities’ approaches to creating sanctioned encampments, and some of its members have visited other cities in recent months with their own camps, including Tulsa, Okla.; Nashville, Tenn.; San Antonio; Austin, Texas; and Portland, Ore.

Aimee Cox – the city’s former lead official in addressing homelessness – voiced conflicted feelings about the concept.

“The challenge with sanctioned camping is it requires a lot of resources, and people are still homeless,” Cox said. “I get what he’s (Bundgaard’s) trying to accomplish, which is stopping the criminalization and the constant movement of people, which is disruptive. It causes its own trauma.

“I don’t know that sanctioned camping is the answer to that,” she said.

The local debate comes as Colorado Springs police and El Paso County sheriff’s deputies increase enforcement of city and county camping bans as a means to push campers into shelters.

Dozens of beds have been available in recent weeks at the Salvation Army’s emergency warming shelter off Weber Street, along with dozens of beds at the city’s other two shelters.

At a meeting of homeless providers in early March, Sgt. Curt Hasling said the tempo of encampment sweeps would increase, so long as shelter beds remain available.

But annual surveys of the county’s homeless population have routinely shown more people living outside than there are shelter beds in the city. And that discrepancy is only expected to grow with the planned closure of the Weber Street shelter on April 30.

Bundgaard said the answer lies on a sprawling private property lot in the county that abuts Fountain Creek, just south of the Martin Luther King Bypass.

There, dozens of people kicked out of illegal encampments elsewhere in the region recently created their own tent city.

Bundgaard says it’s the perfect site for the area’s first sanctioned encampment.

Fred Martin, the property’s owner, and Bundgaard recently met with a slew of county officials to gauge how they might create such an encampment on the property. Much of the land is undeveloped, and the rest hosts Martin’s business, Rocky Top Resources, which is a wood recycling and landscape supply company.

The concept faces months – if not almost a year – of regulatory hurdles before it could become reality, county officials say. And it must gain approval by the county’s Planning Commission and the El Paso County commissioners.

Commissioner Stan VanderWerf said he was open to allowing private property owners to host “a handful” of homeless campers on their property, with county leaders’ approval. But a camp so close to Fountain Creek “is going to be a challenge.”

Commissioner Longinos Gonzalez also voiced concerns about the Rocky Top camp’s proximity to the creek, adding he was undecided on the overall concept.

Red tape morassBefore Martin can even ask the county for the needed variance to host an encampment, he must first kick each camper off his property and fix a longstanding – and unrelated – zoning issue imperiling his company’s future.

A zoning variance allowing Rocky Top to operate on the residentially zoned property ended in 2014, and it has been operating out of compliance ever since, said Dave Rose, a county spokesman.

Earlier this year, Martin filed paperwork seeking to permanently change the area’s zoning to heavy industrial – a designation more befitting of the landscape supply center, Rose said.

But before the application can proceed to a vote by the El Paso County commissioners, each camper must be off Rocky Top’s property, said Craig Dossey, the county’s executive director of planning and community development.

County officials gave Martin until April 30 to evict the campers, should they refuse his requests to leave.

Should any remain on May 1, Martin will be issued a notice of violation, Dossey said. Such notices are the first step in a process that, while rare, could end in the county filing a civil suit against the company and a lien on the property.

Martin said he’s asked the campers to leave, and would formally evict them if necessary. He declined further comment.

Bundgaard has also requested the campers leave so that he can help Martin seek a variance to lawfully allow camping on the property.

Bundgaard envisions a camp with 30-by-30-foot plots of land for tents, which would be kept 75 feet from Fountain Creek.

His nonprofit, Blackbird Outreach, would help provide portable bathrooms, shower facilities and picnic tables, as well as rolloff Dumpsters to help keep the area clean. He said all of it could be provided via a service road leading to the back of the property, which is a quarter-mile off Las Vegas Street.

On Tuesday, more than 45 tents and tarp-covered structures existed on the property, with nearly 10 others just outside Rocky Top’s property line.

“We’ve become a little family – our own little community,” said Tabitha, 40, who was one of five people elected as camp leaders. She declined to give her last name.

Most tent sites on the property had little surrounding trash. The camp had its own rolloff dumpster, which has been filled and replaced multiple times, Bundgaard said.

Still, several heaps of discarded clothes and tents, food wrappers and mangled tarps existed along the camp’s outskirts. And trash littered nearby Fountain Creek, much like in other parts of the city.

Lee Wolf, 59, a homeless camper living just south of Rocky Top, welcomed the concept of sanctioned camps.

Such camps would allow city and police officials to better keep track of the city’s homeless population, rather than pushing people out to increasingly-secluded campsites, he said. It could cut down on campers’ fears of facing fines for illegally camping.

And he advocated charging a small fee – perhaps $1 a day – to help pay for trash and portable toilets at such an encampment.

“If you don’t have a sanctioned camp, where are you going to put them?” Wolf said.

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