Colo. Springs grapples with property of homeless
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colorado ” Colorado Springs is voting on a plan that could make it easier for the city’s homeless to keep possessions such as prescription drugs during periodic sweeps of homeless encampments.
Tuesday’s city council vote comes after homeless advocates alleged that a city-sponsored nonprofit, Keep Colorado Springs Beautiful, accompanied by police, confiscated or trashed homeless property during cleanup sweeps of campsites.
The complaints led to a moratorium on cleanups in October. If passed, the plan, developed by police, the city and homeless groups, will allow cleanups to resume but give the homeless advance notice as well as a chance to collect belongings from the city.
“We’ve been working together on rewriting protocol,” said police Cmdr. Kurt Tillard.
It would also require mental health outreach workers to accompany cleanup crews to communicate with the homeless, two-thirds of whom are mentally ill, said Robert Holmes, executive director of Homeward Pikes Peak, a federally funded homeless organization.
Charles “Gunny” Ross lives in a tent on the banks of Fountain Creek. He says he returned from lunch one day at the Marian House Soup Kitchen to find his camp had been ransacked, most of his belongings gone. Ross blamed the police and KCSB, a state affiliate of the national environmental organization Keep America Beautiful.
“I had a tent stolen, clothes, personal items,” said the fatigue-wearing Ross, 49, who said he is a veteran of the Gulf War where he served as a gunnery sergeant.
“They took pictures of my kids and grandkids. They’re irreplaceable,” said 51-year-old Karen Noble, Ross’s fiancee and tent-mate who said she is a former Air Force major who also served in the Gulf War.
Ross and Noble started camping by the river in September when Ross’ job as a construction day laborer ended.
“Other camps up and down the river were hit,” said Ross. “It’s frustrating, it’s angering, it’s demoralizing. If you’ve ever had your house burglarized, you know what that feels like.”
As part of a nationwide survey overseen by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Colorado Springs, population 360,000, reported 1,300 homeless in January. Holmes said the actual number is closer to 2,200, or 10 percent more than last year, and he blamed the increase on the recession.
Last fall, the Colorado Veterans Alliance, an organization dedicated to assisting Colorado veterans, threatened litigation over what it called police-supervised “raids” it alleged were carried out under the guise of cleanups by KCSB. Initially, seven victims came forward with complaints, but the Alliance collected more affidavits, said spokesman Rick Duncan.
Parts of the last cleanup on Oct. 11 were caught on video posted to YouTube. It apparently shows court-ordered community service workers assigned to cleanup duty with KCSB confiscating personal belongings like pillows and sleeping bags and stuffing them into bags. One worker is shown searching a suitcase.
Crews seized ID cards and military discharge papers, service medals and prescription medications, said Duncan, a former Marine captain who served three tours in Iraq before founding the alliance.
Colorado Springs police say they don’t take personal possessions. “I can send you pictures of things we take and I would not call it possessions,” said Tillard.
KCSB called the accusations frivolous.
“We do not do raids. We clean up trash that’s in the environment,” said Dee Cunningham, executive director of KCSB. “The police are just there to assure our safety.”
Cunningham insisted her organization goes out of its way to help homeless people it encounters.
“I personally have taken people clothing. I personally have taken people to shelters around town. I’ve called workers out to do welfare checks,” she said.
Other cities have faced similar problems.
In Kincaid v. City of Fresno, a district court approved a settlement last year that awarded more than 350 homeless plaintiffs, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, $2.35 million in damages for cleanup sweeps and the seizure of personal property by city workers. Most of the money was deposited into a housing allowance account to help victims find secure housing.
The court stated in its opinion that the cleanups had the purpose of “driving homeless people from the city of Fresno.”
Karen Noble hopes a new policy in Colorado Springs will raise awareness about the rights of homeless people like herself.
“Lots of people are just a paycheck away from this,” she said.