(Editor’s note: This is second in a series on issues around homelessness in Colorado Springs. The first, on a proposed tiny home village for veterans is here. The third, on the city’s Homeless Response Action Plan is here.)
Colorado Springs — In the chill hour before dawn on Monday, Dec. 17, the occupants of the Shook’s Run homeless camp near Royer and West Las Vegas streets waited to be evicted from the last private-property camp in the city as city workers marshaled equipment and personnel at the South Shook’s Run Park to the north and the Quarry property to the west.
Some tents and belongings that had been there the day before were now missing, as some residents had heeded the city’s notices saying that the camp would be cleared Monday.
Dozens of the orange flyers warning of the cleanup were stapled to trees throughout the camp by police on Wednesday, Dec. 12, after an un-announced, early-morning attempt to evict the campers by about 25 officers.
At the time, heated arguments between police and campers erupted when campers complained that they had not been given any notice to leave and had been given the impression last Tuesday that they were safe from the clearing of the Quarry camp next door.
Police eventually backed off and instead put up notices that the camp would be cleared on Monday.
The Legal Dispute
As the residents waited for something to happen, some began packing up belongings in anticipation, but others did not.
Some campers told Complete Colorado that they don’t believe the city can force them out. The property is unfenced and not posted with “No Trespassing” signs and appears to be unused except by the campers. Residents claim they are on the property legally and don’t have to leave until the owners tell them to.
The campers’ argument appears to be supported by Colorado law, which says that people going onto private property that is neither fenced nor posted do so “with license and privilege” until notice that they are trespassing is “personally communicated to the person by the owner of the land or some other authorized person.”
According to county records examined by Complete Colorado, the last legal owners were Floyd L. Ancell and Robert A. Thall. Both died in 2015 within 4 months of each other. No records of the property being probated were found after an extensive search by independent sources. As far as the El Paso County Clerk and Recorders office knows the property currently belongs to the estates of Ancell and Thall.
The city claims that a legal heir was contacted and written permission to evict the campers was obtained. When asked who the heir contacted is, Lt. Michael Lux, commander of the city’s Homeless Outreach Team, declined to disclose it at the city’s homeless action plan public meeting last Thursday, despite the fact that land ownership documents are public records.
Lt. Lux said, “I guess I don’t need to [tell you], but you can look it up. I honestly don’t think it’s fair for me to give you their information because they might not want you to call them.” He said he had a written document giving him permission to evict the campers, but didn’t say where it could be looked up and declined to provide a copy, saying he didn’t have it with him and “didn’t want to make a mistake.” All he would say is that city lawyers gave him the go-ahead.
Complete Colorado has filed a Colorado Open Records Act request for documents showing the city has authority to act for the deceased owners.
The dispute over ownership and eviction authority created some friction between the campers and the police on Monday, but the eviction proceeded without any violence or arrests.
After Lt. Lux, accompanied by City Councilman Tom Strand, walked through the camp telling people they had to leave, residents scrambled to save what they could from the city’s skid-steer loaders and cleanup personnel. One resident, who had been living there for more than two years, became agitated and vowed to stand his ground, but eventually relented and after moving his own property came back to help others move theirs.
Complaints and epithets were hurled at the police by some, but others tried to keep the peace and prevent violence from erupting.
Residents told Complete Colorado that the camp is like a family and that residents commonly help and look out for one another. This was seen in the group effort to move tons of personal belongings out before the loaders came in and put the rest in roll-off dumpsters.
The police monitored progress and work personnel were careful not to dump anything until it was clear the occupant was not coming back for anything else. Clearing proceeded steadily from north to south, towards Royer Street as the residents either moved their crammed shopping carts or abandoned what they could not carry.
No Plan for the Shelter-averse
Lt. Lux told campers that they could go to the Springs Rescue Mission night shelter located about a half-mile from the camp for food and shelter. But most people interviewed by Complete Colorado said they would not use the city’s night shelter beds. If they were inclined to do so, one resident said, they would already be there.
The reasons this group of homeless people gave for refusing to use night shelters are many, including fear of theft, attack, vermin, disease and noise in the close quarters of a night shelter. Accommodations for pets, families, children and spouses/partners living together are also limited.
Others suffer from PTSD, claustrophobia, fear of strangers, schizophrenia and other mental illnesses they say make it difficult for them to cope with shelter life. Others simply object to the regimented life and rules of the shelters that puts them out on the street early in the morning. “It’s like being in jail,” said one camper. Some are banned from shelters entirely.
The most common objection is that campers have to abandon any belongings that exceed the shelter’s permissible quantity. Part of the city’s Homeless Action Plan includes building storage facilities for belongings, but that isn’t planned until at least next year.
When asked what provision the city has made for helping out this contingent of shelter-averse homeless persons, the night shelters seems to be the only entry point for other services such as transitional housing. “They can work their way up from there,” said Lt. Lux in an interview last week.
As the homeless dispersed from both the Quarry and the Shook’s Run camps, information from emergency medical services sources indicates that some people are moving north, into the Black Forest area, indicated by an uptick in calls for service and hospitalization.
Residents of west side neighborhoods complained at Thursday’s meeting that they were already seeing homeless in the area, sometimes sleeping in people’s yards.
Homeless campers complain having to abandon their tents, bedding and clothing leaves them helpless against the cold. In their tent community, they say, people manage to survive the cold and look out for one another.
By about 11:30 a.m. people had moved as much as they could, being closely followed by cleanup crews. Police officers moved them steadily towards Royer St., and once the campers were out the police quickly put up police tape at the entrances to the property to keep them out.
Some residents moved south on Royer and then east along West Las Vegas Street, while others went north to the South Shook’s Run public park.