COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. - (UPDATE: WEDNESDAY, DEC. 13)
The El Paso County Sheriff's Office announced Wednesday that it will clean two homeless campsites and order the occupants to leave.
The camps are presently located near 31st Street and Colorado Avenue on the west side of Colorado Springs.
KRDO NewsChannel 13 began reporting on the situation Monday after receiving a viewer's email complaining about loitering, trash, noise and safety concerns from around a dozen people living under the bridges.
Lt. Bill Huffor said the bridge under 31st Street is owned by the Colorado Department of Transportation and an adjacent bridge connected to an RV park is on county property.
"So they could be cited for trespassing if they don't leave," he said. "We've already been down there during the past few weeks and are aware of the situation. We even arrested several people who had outstanding warrants."
Huffor said the illegal campers will be given advance notice of an upcoming, unspecified date to leave the property.
"We'll give them a few days to prepare, then we'll come back a few days later to make sure they're gone," he said. "Most of the time, they leave peacefully. But they'll just end up starting another camp somewhere else."
The responsibility for cleaning the camp sites will be shared by CDOT and Keep Colorado Springs Beautiful, a local litter control organization.
Huffor said the Sheriff's Office will supervise the cleanup.
"They're not big camps so it shouldn't take more than a day," he said.
One homeless man said he has already moved out.
"I got tired of it," he said. "There was a guy down there who kept lighting campfires and putting people at risk. I told him to stop and he refused. I wanted to tell the cops, but I have a warrant and they would have arrested me. So I left."
The man said he and his girlfriend recently found jobs and hope to escape homelessness soon.
(PREVIOUS STORY: MONDAY, DEC. 11)
On Monday, KRDO NewsChannel 13 investigated a complaint about illegal homeless camps near 31st Street and West Colorado Avenue.
More than a dozen people occupy three separate camps. There is one under a bridge on 31st Street, another under a bridge connected to a nearby RV park and one consisting of tents behind a Walgreen's drug store.
Trash, bicycles, shopping carts and other items surround the camps.
The neighbor who made the complaint declined to be identified and criticized city leaders, citizens and surrounding businesses for allowing the camps to exist.
"It is really disgusting!" the neighbor said in an email to KRDO NewsChannel 13.
Many neighbors are reluctant to speak publicly about the situation for fear of reprisals by the homeless, and other neighbors said they're reluctant to use the nearby and popular Midland Trail because of homeless people loitering in the area.
Doug Kennell regularly rides his bike on the trail in that area.
"I wish the city could make a place for them all to camp," he said. "I would prefer that other than always riding my bike and seeing them. It bothers me that we have homeless."
Sgt. Curt Hasling, of the Colorado Springs Police Department's Homeless Outreach Team, said he understands why neighbors complain about the camps, and that officers are not enforcing the city's no-camping ordinance.
"It's cold at night and there aren't many shelter beds available," he said. "Given that, we're very limited in what we can do. I wouldn't say we're cutting them slack, but without a place for them to go, what are we supposed to do? And I'm asking that of the community."
Some homeless people said police have told them camps will be allowed as long as they're kept clean and residents cause no trouble.
"I know some of the camps are messy," said Tyler Brewer, who lives under the 31st Street bridge. "But we try to keep ours clean. Most of us are here because we don't have a home or a job. Some of us are here by choice, as I am, but some are not. But don't treat us any differently because of that. We're people, too. We need shelter just as you do. If you want to get rid of us, find us a place to live."
Kurt Gerard Haehl is a homeless man who knows several of the bridge dwellers.
"People like to blame us for the trash, but it's not just us," he said. "We always get blamed and looked down upon. Don't assume that we're always wrong. We're surviving out here every day, as best as we can."
But a few of the homeless aren't surviving; police confirmed that several homeless people have died this season from exposure or other conditions related to cold weather.
"And we've had a relatively mild fall," Hasling said. "The temperatures haven't been all that cold yet."
Hasling said city leaders have long-term strategies in place to address homelessness, such as the expansion of the Springs Rescue Mission.
"But we need more short-term strategies," he said. "Like, where can people go when the weather is cold and the shelters are full?"
A nearby business owner thinks being too kind to the homeless may be part of the problem.
"We're enabling them more than really helping them," the merchant said. "I know there are some people who are really in need. But for a lot of them, if you keep helping them, they'll stick around because they have no incentive to better themselves."
Homeless doesn't mean hopeless, however.
Bob Smith, a former Department of Human Services director in Routt County, wants to help find solutions.
"I just moved back here in March," he said. "I love it here. We didn't have many homeless in Routt County but I've certainly noticed them here. I don't want to judge anyone. We need to give them options and choices. They wouldn't be out here if they had them."