Part Three of a Three-Part Series
You don’t need a degree in sociology to know that Colorado Springs has a large, visible homeless population. Anytime we walk downtown, bike along Monument Creek, or exit off I-25, the often tired faces of the dispossessed remind of us of the harsh reality of homelessness in our city.
The city’s homelessness problem is driven primarily by a large and growing affordable housing shortage, and the only way to truly solve it is to increase the supply of affordable housing in the city until there is housing available for everyone. But it took us roughly a decade to get into the mess we’re in now, and if I were a betting man, I’d put money on it taking us significantly longer to get out of it.
In the meantime, it makes sense to think about how we treat the homeless population, focusing on balancing their needs and rights with those of the rest of the city’s residents. The Colorado Springs Police Department deserves a lot of credit—and continued scrutiny—for the work they’ve done on this issue. The City Council is much less deserving.
In 2009, the CSPD formed a Homelessness Outreach Team (“HOT” team) consisting of three officers tasked with taking a community approach to ensuring the wellbeing of homeless residents while keeping the city’s parks and public spaces clean and safe for everyone else. The team began doing outreach to the homeless community and coordinating with advocacy groups and service providers to connect the people in need with the resources available. In 2010, the team received the International Herman Goldstein Award for Excellence in Problem-Oriented Policing.
One of the biggest and most controversial pieces of the “HOT” team’s job is to enforce the city’s no-camping ordinance, passed by the city council in 2010 by an 8-1 vote. I have mixed feelings about the ordinance, but overall I think it was thoughtfully written and enforced, though recent trends are concerning. It was drafted with input from the CSPD, the ACLU, service providers, shelters, and homeless individuals.
The law requires that officers give campers 48-hour notice before they’re ticketed, as well as an alternative housing option. If there are no alternatives available, no ticket can be issued. The “HOT” team has stressed that they do not want the ordinance to be a punitive measure, rather a way to connect homeless individuals with housing resources and clean up public parks.
Right after the ordinance was passed, it was a resounding success. Over the first year or so, the “HOT” team was able to connect over 200 people to permanent or transitional housing options without making a single arrest. However, recently, it seems CSPD is dramatically increasing enforcement—in 2017, they issued nearly 200 citations for violations of the ordinance, more than from 2010 to 2014 combined, according to the Colorado Springs Independent. Given that the growth of the homeless population has outpaced the growth of housing alternatives and shelter space, this increased enforcement constitutes a deeply troubling trend.
Recent measures passed through City Council reflect a similar trend. In 2016, the council passed the Pedestrian Access Act banning sitting, kneeling, and lying on sidewalks, punishable by fines of up to $500. Early in 2017, they passed an ordinance prohibiting the use of narrow medians, sloped medians, or medians on busy streets. The law targets panhandlers, and many homeless advocates argue that it is less about safety than about keeping the city’s homeless population out of sight and out of mind.
I can’t say for sure what’s causing all of this. My unscientific analysis is that when the homelessness population of Colorado Springs began to balloon in 2008 and 2009, sentiment in the city was overwhelmingly supportive of actions to help members of the homeless population, not punish them. But in the intervening decade, people have come to view homelessness not as an urgent problem requiring our attention, but instead as an irritating fact of life in the city.
Whatever the cause, the recent laws and enforcement trends have criminalized homelessness in Colorado Springs—something I personally cannot abide. There is no right more fundamental than that of existence, and these laws encroach on the city’s homeless residents’ right to exist.
There are good reasons to want to keep sidewalks clear and people off of dangerous medians at busy intersections. But giving sometimes expensive tickets to people who often can’t even afford to eat is not a solution. The police and city government of Colorado Springs need to get back to a community approach of dealing with the homeless population, one that views homeless people as fully human and eschews cruelty in all its forms.