A crumbling concrete barrier stands sentry in a field behind a few posh apartments in downtown Colorado Springs’ Lowell neighborhood, spray-painted with a warning: “TURN BACK NOW…”
Call it a doormat to “the quarry,” as a sprawling homeless encampment is called by those who live there.
At least 145 tents and tarp-covered shelters — several of which appear abandoned, resembling little more than heaps of trash — are behind the barrier, covering most of 10 acres of fields where perhaps more than 100 people live.
It’s on the outskirts of downtown, a five-minute walk from the Colorado Springs Police Department’s headquarters but a world apart from all of it. Just 100 yards from $400,000-condos, these tents and tarps are tucked into every ravine, marked by rising puffs of smoke and bordered often by piles of discarded plastic bottles, food wrappers and bike parts.
It’s the latest — and one of the largest — in a long and seemingly endless line of tent cities to sprout in Colorado Springs, usually alongside creeks or within a stone’s throw of an over-capacity shelter.
In at least one respect, this one seems different.
This time, there are dozens of beds routinely available at a homeless shelter just a 15-minute walk away. And perspectives on the camp differ, based on who you ask.
For the campers here, the quarry offers a shot at freedom — one devoid of the respiratory diseases they fear might exist at the nearby Springs Rescue Mission shelter. Unlike the shelter, there are no early-morning wake-up calls and couples can sleep together, not in separate buildings. And for many, this place offers a tight-knit sense of community found in few other places.
For police, the quarry presents a quandary. It largely exists on several parcels of private property, and officers say their hands are tied when it comes to telling people to leave.
And for one nonprofit director, the quarry is nothing more than an opportunity lost.
Steve Wood, director of Concrete Couch, envisioned the property as a place where his organization could set an example of tolerance and patience in a community where tensions over homelessness are on the rise. He imagined giving the campers some time, once the property was acquired, to help them find housing.
But those plans disintegrated. And in the meantime, this camp has exploded in size, with tents and trash everywhere.
“It’s in free fall out on the land,” a disillusioned Wood said.
Now, in addition to a kaleidoscopic sign bearing the nonprofit’s name at the encampment’s southeast entrance is another warning: NO TRESPASSING — NO CAMPING.
But as Thanksgiving has given way to the Christmas season, most residents of this impromptu village have no plans to leave.
Clutching the ends of a small tree branch, Jeremiah Bahe, 30, breaks it in half and drops it on his growing pile of firewood.
He walks the collection into his hut — a 5-by-6 foot tarp-covered shanty that uses the wire-frame seat of a couch as its roof, and myriad blankets for its walls.
A makeshift metal stove buried halfway into the ground sits front and center, spewing smoke. It’s enough to make the eyes of anyone inside water within seconds.
He sits down on a flatbed of sleeping bags and blankets. The air is only slightly more breathable.
“I keep the area clean — I keep it all presentable, not all bum-like,” Bahe says.
No one person owns this land. The Lowell neighborhood’s chief developer owns the far northerly tract bordering Fountain Boulevard, at the dead end of Wahsatch Avenue.
Two people — both of whom recently died — own another parcel along this field’s eastern border near Shooks Run.
The Legacy Institute owns the biggest strip of land, a long parcel stretching the length of its southern border along some train tracks to Royer Street.
It’s currently selling that property to the nonprofit Concrete Couch.
And that’s where most people live.
Farthest west is Bahe, who has been homeless about three years and moves like a nomad every few months. A self-described “survivalist,” he tried staying at the Springs Rescue Mission just down the street. But he left after developing a cough and possibly walking pneumonia.
Several other campers reported staying a short while at shelters operated by the Springs Rescue Mission or the Salvation Army but also chose to come here.
“Once you walk into that place, you feel the negative vibes,” Bahe said, while also complaining of theft. “I don’t really feel like being dependent on anybody else.”
“I guess that that’s why they say homelessness is what you make of it — or where you make it.”
Many appear to have spent time in homeless encampments elsewhere in the city which were tagged for removal by Colorado Springs police and swept clean. They include the Rocky Top encampment and countless others — all disbanded, leaving people to scatter, often to the next tent city a few hundred yards away.
In this cat-and-mouse game with police and property owners, campers are told to move on, preferably into a shelter.
In the past, that advice rang hollow — no beds existed for people, especially those caught in the grip of drug or alcohol addiction.
Seeing that cycle repeat itself over and over, Steve Wood had an idea, which didn’t look anything like what this camp does now.
As Concrete Couch’s director, he pictured 10 campsites, clean and orderly, with trash receptacles nearby and a port-o-potty.
People living here would have had to sign a simple agreement — one banning violence, guns, theft, alcohol, illegal drugs and disruptive behavior.
It was meant to be a yearlong “transitional community” while Concrete Couch built its new offices and a warehouse for artists on the property. Possible solar panels, an adventure playground and even frisbee golf and biking were envisioned for the site. And while those amenities were being built, campers on the property would have time to find apartments, knowing it could take several months.
It would have been a big change from the nonprofit’s typical work, which includes hosting programs at the Colorado Springs Senior Center, painting murals, beautifying benches and parks and demonstrating ways to make sustainable artwork and projects across the city. Often, they try to help lower-income residents become more involved in their communities, to build resiliency.
Still, Wood saw potential. Rather than kick campers off immediately after acquiring the land, Wood wanted to show the community how a property owner’s patience could help people experiencing homelessness find a way off the streets.
“I thought we’d have more institutional support,” Wood said.
Publicity about those plans caused some Concrete Couch donors to back out, leaving the organization reeling, Wood said. Some people wrote to Wood saying his plans would aid and abet drug addicts.
In addition, the camp would have had to pass muster with city planners and code enforcement — no simple task.
The nonprofit still doesn’t own the land, but the deal is expected to be finalized soon.
Wood has no plans to follow through on his original vision.
“At one point, I thought we could actually help people, and spend several months doing it, and help them transition,” Wood said. “At this point, it’s probably much more likely, with all the scrutiny and all the negative everything, that we’re probably going to just, once we own it, immediately ask everyone to leave.”
The dynamics of the cat-and-mouse game between campers and the police also changed in recent months.
Colorado Springs officials recently added space for 100 additional people at the Springs Rescue Mission, and transformed 120 beds at the Salvation Army’s R.J. Montgomery shelter into low-barrier beds, meaning admission is based on behavior, not sobriety. More space is expected to be added in December.
Yet dozens of beds have gone unused.
Such openings have typically been short-lived, lasting only about a month or so after each shelter expansion, while word trickled out into the camps.
But some people have become resistant to the shelters.
Over and over, people here said they considered fellow campers to be like family — willing to do almost anything to help out, including lend supplies, food and words of encouragement. It is that sense of community that keeps many people from leaving, especially with the stigma of homelessness being so great outside of this place.
“I’ve met a lot of great people out here,” said Brandon Robbins, 30, who lived in the camp for more than a year before recently getting a room in a sober-living house. His fiance still lives in the camp, and he still spends much of his time there. “These people are the most caring, kind people you’ll meet.”
The specter of disease and illness kept Rachel Hawkins, 31, from walking to the Springs Rescue Mission, just three-quarters of a mile away, she said. Plus she can’t sleep in the same bed as her husband at the shelter. Though much of life in this muddy camp is undignified, that simple decision can mean the world.
The couple came to Colorado from Kansas for marijuana, for access to Medicaid health coverage and to find a job in a thriving economy where the unemployment rate is less than 3 percent.
They use the Springs Rescue Mission’s day center for showers and to clean laundry. And she wants an apartment. But her ID was stolen, so she’s here with her “street family.”
“I prefer it out here, doing it on my own,” Hawkins said.
El Paso County Public Health said no disease outbreaks have been reported at the city’s shelters this year, though it said congregate settings like shelters can make respiratory illnesses like the common cold challenging to control.
Travis Williams, chief development officer for Springs Rescue Mission, said everyone is told to leave the shelter in the mornings so the staff can clean it. And visitors must remove all of their belongings every Saturday morning for a deeper cleaning.
“Ultimately, the Springs Rescue Mission is working to make sure that people are warm, safe and dry,” Williams said. “And we’re trying to get people out of the elements, as much as possible.”
For their part, city officials want the camp disbanded.
Illegal camping is among the top complaints received by the city, said Andrew Phelps, the city’s homelessness prevention and response coordinator. Campers’ desires for freedom can’t infringe on the rights of private property owners, he said. Nor can it negatively affect city property.
“I admire the work that Concrete Couch is doing in our community,” Phelps said. “But it’s becoming increasingly clear that allowing camping on that property is not sustainable in the long term.”
“It’s impossible to make shelters pleasing to every person out there,” Phelps added. “We are working diligently on making our shelter services in our town as low-barrier and as welcoming as possible in order to get people connected to services. Because again, that’s where the answers are … they’re at risk of dying of exposure outside, and we’re trying to prevent that.”
Colorado Springs police Lt. Mike Lux says his hands are tied.
Most of the quarry’s camps are on private property — leaving them safe from the city’s camping bans, which apply only to publicly-owned city land.
And, he said questions exist about whether property owners want trespassing laws to be enforced. Ownership of at least one parcel is in question, due to the owners having died and the city having difficulty tracking down the heirs. And without all property owners on board, he said, campers could just move across a property boundary, solving nothing.
With so much uncertainty, Lux has refused to green-light the camp’s removal.
“Once we get them all, it will be more effective for us to move forward,” Lux said.
When that happens, Lux said he wants officers to take their time dismantling the camp. He wants public health and nonprofit social service workers to help connect campers to opportunities for housing and jobs.
The city’s current 24-hour grace period for campers to leave likely wouldn’t apply in this case, he said.
“Whatever that time is, I assure you, it’s not 24 hours, Lux said. “(The camp is) too big. We might do 30 days. And then 15 days into it, we might have that smorgasbord of different services available.”
So for now, the quarry continues.
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