When I read his account this morning, I found it both moving and revelatory. It’s particularly significant now, as the city once again contemplates dismantling the homeless camps and sending these poor people to an uncertain and invisible fate.
Here are excerpts from Tim’s email:
“I read Danny Chacon’s (Gazette Reporter) report about a proposal to “make it illegal to camp or set-up or occupy a tent, shack or other temporary shelter that could be used for camping on any public property.” On the face of it, that sounds reasonable, but like most things in life, “on the face of it” is not that easy. I figured if I were King of the World, I’d likely have to have an opinion on the matter, so I decided to spend the better part of Sunday morning checking-it-out.
I expected to find drunks and drug addicts; abusive and menacing people; and generally putting myself in harm’s way in search of information. In fact, as I pulled out of the drive-way, I cautioned my wife, “If I don’t check-in by high noon, call the Sheriff!”
The most visible homeless encampment is along I-25, just south of Cimarron. And while you can see plenty as a drive-by, there’s a large earthen-berm shielding the larger population. From I-25, you can easily see Richard Tenant’s place. It’s the big, blue, square tent with the American flag normally planted out-front, and his dog-tent. Yes, he has a separate tent for TJ, the dog. (TJ’s nice, but he’s nosy. He keeps the critters at bay; especially the bear that was there the other night.) I suppose there are a dozen or so small camps that make-up the neighborhood and to the folks who live there, it is “their neighborhood”. And make no mistake; as Andy told me, “If you wander into our neighborhood and we don’t like you or feel threatened, we have “frontier justice”. He told me of a recent instance where an uninvited intruder stumbled drunk into camp one night and was swiftly met with a knife to his throat and an invitation to leave; now. He did.
Richard’s place seems comfortable enough I guess, at least as far as an urban-tent can be. He’s been in place since April and he’s making it more comfortable by-the-day; much like you’d fix-up your home. I told him that many consider homeless people a nuisance and think it’s disgusting that they use Fountain Creek as a private toilet. He told me he thought that would be disgusting, too. We both laughed. Then he told me how it really works. Richard explained that most of the “clean neighborhoods” use potty-holes that are dug into the ground throughout the neighborhood. They dig a hole; use it for a couple of weeks and bury it. Others use makeshift potties, (especially Penny & Maureen – the only 2 women in the camp). Somebody comes along about every 2 weeks (they think from the utilities department) and retrieves the effluent, which, in the meantime, is stored in baggie-like containers until it’s hauled off. I thought, “This gives new meaning to public/private partnerships!”
I met Richard, Andy, Penny, Mo, Indian Kenny, Train-Wreck (so named because he was “runned over by a danged old train” – seriously – and lived), Rocky, Keith, Andy, Robert (who was high as a kite), Mike “the musician” and Ed Kramer. Ed was a journeyman carpenter who claims to have worked for GE Johnson and Murphy Construction once. Indian Kenny said he was a journeyman glazer and Andy said he has 3 separate degrees and was previously some kind of engineer earning over $85,000 per year! I took Indian Kenny’s glasses and promised to get them fixed. He can’t really see without them and has no-clue who to call. I thought, “Damn, something that simple.” He takes Dilantin every day for his seizure disorder.
Andy’s place is the most elaborate and he seems to be the Godfather. He has a solar cell powering his place; he has battery back-up if that doesn’t work and he has a gas generator with enough electric to run his DVD and computer and other “toys”. He has a clock hung on the wall and a closet with clothes nicely hung and well sorted. Are you kidding me? He’s been building his place for the past 3 years and brags about his 9′ long, log-ceiling beams and 6 tons of foundation dirt. Folks, here’s a newsflash – he’s not building a temporary place; he’s building for the next generation! His place reminds me of an earthen home I saw in a trip across the plains of North Dakota or Laura Ingalls Wilder’s homestead.
I had coffee with Indian Kenny, Ed and Andy. It was amazingly good. It was not Starbuck’s. It was better; fresh brewed instant with a taste of sugar. They brewed it while I waited, over a wood fire in their living room. The living room is a 4 sided tent shared by everyone with no room for anyone to sleep. It’s strictly a day-room. It’s the community gathering spot where the day’s events and projects, which normally include the trek to the Marion House or the New Hope Shelter, are planned and discussed.
I asked everyone what they feared most. Penny & Mo, the only women in the camp, feared sexual assault from someone outside their neighborhood. Mo said she wouldn’t walk the trails by herself. (OK people, there is a message here. If a homeless lady, who knows the ropes & danger won’t walk the trails by herself, ding, ding, ding, “Houston, we have a problem!”) Penny’s biggest fear is freezing to death. Everyone agreed that forcing them to move would be terrible but realized that it’s likely; they just hoped that it could be postponed until spring. Ed said he heard that there are fewer homeless camps now than there were during the Great Depression; because homeless people camped there during the Depression, they believe there’s an historical precedent for their living there now; and they think we’re living through a new, Great Depression because they all claim to want jobs, but say “There just ain’t no jobs!”
I met Dave. Dave zealously and dangerously left his wife & kid in the car parked on the side of I-25. I asked him what he was doing and he said, “I came to see what the guys need.” I told him, by his dress, he didn’t look like he could do much and he replied, “I have friends and we can bring food and blankets and anything else. The shelters are full and Jesus told me in church this morning that I should help these people so I came right away.” And that seems to be the feeling of many church and para-church organizations. Indian Kenny told me “It’s not possible to starve-to-death in Colorado Springs. He said “There are too many do-gooders.” There may be too many well intentioned Dave’s. I don’t know. I know Penny has over a month’s supply of toilet paper in her tent; she had bacon and eggs for breakfast and told “her old man” that “There’s nothing I need,” as he left for the grocery store.
Rocky has a tent; he lives by himself with his neighbor’s help. He can’t walk. He has something wrong with his hips. Keith is “slow”. He has his own tent. His neighbor’s help him too. He’s giving up on Colorado Springs and leaving for Durango.
I explained that the city was tired of panhandlers and being accosted by homeless people and I asked what message they wanted me hear. They explained that there are 3 classes of homeless in Colorado Springs; the drug addicts and drunks – they’re the bad ones; they mostly live across from the X-Press Motel at Cimarron & 8th Street and on the “north-end”, which in homeless parlance is the Fillmore & I-25 area. Those are the dangerous places. They all stay away from those areas and advised me to do so, too. (Of course I immediately went there, and if you want to know what I found, call or email me.) They said those guys need the 1 way bus ticket out of Dodge.
Then they said there are 2 other groups of homeless; the sick & disabled who need help; and 3) them. Those who choose to live on the street; off-the-grid and who have lived in the area for years; those who formerly had jobs and because of the circumstances of life, ran out of gas. Penny attended Coronado and graduated from Palmer for darn-sake!
There are no easy answers.”