Businessman visits the city’s homeless camps

Mon, Dec 7, 2009


It was a cold weekend – about as cold as it ever gets in Colorado Springs.
Today is no exception. Driving to work this morning from the west side, creeping down Colorado Avenue, I was mad at the weather and feeling slightly sorry for myself. 
What happened to summer?  What happened to springing out of bed a 5 a.m. on those halcyon summer mornings, jumping on the bike, riding to the top of Gold Camp Road, coasting back home, walking the dog, and still getting to work at 8:30?  That was the good life … and then I thought about the “tent cities” along Fountain Creek, where homeless folk camp out, waiting/hoping for better days.
During the Great Depression, such encampments were called “Hoovervilles,” after the president whom many blamed for the nation’s difficulties. Then, as now, dozens of folks lived in shanties or tents along Fountain and Monument Creek. Then, as now, folks who were better situated helped the less fortunate, ignored them or feared/despised them.
Homeless encampments are visited often enough by cops and by people who want to help, either in private or official capacities. Few stay for long.  Fewer still are prominent businesspeople who, driven both by curiosity and a sense of duty toward others, spend hours with the men and women who live on the creek banks.
Colorado Springs real estate broker Tim Leigh did, and wrote about it in his regular weekend market report. 

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.”




12 Comments For This Post

  1. Liam Says:

    “Moving and touching,” yes, John. But when I read Tim’s account that some have been there since April & “the past three years” and others are building for a lengthy future along the creek, it’s apparent that dwellers in Tent City have plans that go beyond “temporary.”

    As I drove north on I-25 last night in the sub-zero weather, I slowed down to glance at the encampment visibile from the Interstate. There was a campfire under the pedestrian bridge that crosses the creek. A few lanterns flickered here and there. Yeah, I felt bad that some folks apparently have no options but to spend their nights in tents braving the zero degree weather. But after reading Tim Leigh’s story, I also realized that some folks probably prefer it this way.

    Face it. The place is threatening to anyone who dares to venture out for a hike or bike ride along the trail. It’s a sobering reminder to all who drive by that things are not well here (as well as in many other communities with homeless problems – only those communities do not display their problem at the main entranceway to their city along the Interstate).

    I say give ‘em till the spring thaw and move ‘em out. Sure, there are those with genuine problems who need help. But enabling the situation to exist is arguably as bad.

  2. Grace Says:

    The sight of these tents tug at my heart strings. My family & I have talked about taking food to the folks but are not sure if this is safe to do?

    It is hard for those of us who have family to lean on in tough situations especially if not “self-inflicted” situations to imagine that this is the only option! Are these folks there because they want to be? Do they not want to take responsibility for being productive members of the community or have they been forced to live this way? If these folks are there due to unfortunate circumstances and are forced to move where will they go? Does anyone care where they go? What can be done to help? or will we then be part of the “too many do-gooders?

  3. Calvin Newton Says:

    Do these people receive any type of income such as food stamps or welfare. If so what do they do with their money.

  4. Bryan Says:

    If they want to camp out let them. If they want to live there for years, fine.
    Why must you make camping illegal? Why do you have to force someone to live by your rules? This is America, the great wild west of America. Tim has made their voice clear here. It’s their choice to live this way.
    Live your life the way you choose. If you want a big house with a big utility bill and you want to mow your Kentucky blue grass (which should be illegal in C/S with our water shortage) a 1000s times a summer so be it. No one is stopping you.
    Be an American and let these people live how they choose. You think their tents are an eye sore. I think your cookie-cutter McMansions are an eyesore! I wish someone outlaw your ugly house!

  5. es Says:

    Tim Leigh sounds like a remarkable, thoughtful individual. He should run for something…

  6. Eddie Says:

    I read that there are over 150 tents along the creek! We cannot ignore the blight of our brothers and sisters. Forcing them to pack up and move begs the question.. Where to ?

    It has been estimated that the per individual costs to “society” is over $ 40K per year. We can and must to better than the present method.

  7. Captain Says:

    go figure, a guy that thinks, knows business and took the initiiave to go talk to the people what a concept.. Yes Mayor Leigh will be running.

  8. Dick Burns Says:

    You’re right, Eddie. We can’t ignore the “blight.”

  9. dand Says:

    To the tax collector it is said, “Sell all that you have and GIVE it to the POOR”. By most of the Religions and by all of the Prophets of this Earth the words that ring through time are Do unto Others as You would would have Them Do onto You. Those who do not heed these words are DAMNED already!

  10. Liam Says:

    Of course Tim is running for something… wouldn’t this visit to the encampment be good PR for his campaign?

    Somehow I just can’t imagine Lionel doing the same thing. And Larry Small would end up just starting an argument.

  11. Vince Says:

    Thanks Tim for providing this insight on the homeless in our area.

    If you have travelled, you have seen the homeless in just about every town and city in America. Many live in the warmer climates, especially during the winter months. Those in the colder climates find heat from exhaust grates in sidewalks

    Do the homeless actually move from time-to-time from one area to another, or do they actually take root in one locale. What are the amenities in a community that actually entices the homeless to relocate there or encourages them to stay?

    There must be many things important to them that only we provide in Colorado Springs that would both attract the homeless or entice them to stay here, in an area that will be below freezing, even sub-zero temperatures at times, for many months during the year?

  12. Greta Says:

    Anybody can become homeless. Normal people, either by illness or a string of insurmountable problems, can find themselves on the street.

    Normal people have no idea what to do.

    I depended on resourceful, intelligent homeless people to help me find food, shelter and reassurance.

    You’re just dirt to everyone else.

    I’ve a degree. Phi Beta Kappa homeless. I wonder if anyone reading this blog knows what Phi Beta Kappa is?

    Everyday my spirits sink lower and lower.

    No. We do not choose to be homeless. And there are normal, formerly respectable people on the street.