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66Neighborhoods in the trees (Colorado Springs)

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  • Bill Holmes
    Jan 30, 2010

      Neighborhoods in the trees

      Comments 11 Recommend 1

      It's cold, often filthy, and sometimes dangerous. But homeless camps also have a sense of community

      January 30, 2010 5:00 PM
      The Gazette

      In the time it takes to drive from Powers Boulevard to Manitou Springs and back again, Michelle Mead will still be waiting in line for a shower at Ecumenical Social Ministries.

      Some days, Mead waits for two hours so she can stand under the warm water and try to wash away the campfire odor that has attached itself to her clothing and her hair. If she has to wait two hours, she will.

      It’s not as if she has a lot of options. Homeless and unable to find a job, she relies on a network of social services to provide her with most of life’s necessities: food, water, clothing. But homeless campers say there aren’t a lot of places where a person can just drop in and grab a fast shower. It’s just not that easy.

      In fact, little seems easy about living in the camps — despite help from at least a dozen agencies and churches, and an unprecedented outpouring of direct donations of food, clothing, firewood and other items to the campers.

      “Being homeless is a full-time job,” says Cindi, a 45-year-old who has been camping near America the Beautiful Park since August.

      It’s not just about getting a shower. It’s about walking long distances in the bitter cold for a meal at the soup kitchen or Springs Rescue Mission — and having to eat on the agencies’ schedules. It’s about finding the resources to do laundry. It’s about tracking down birth certificates to get an ID so they can compete for one of the scarce jobs in town. It’s about staying warm and finding bathrooms. It’s about trying to find time between grabbing meals and showers to even look for a job.

      To get a better understanding of what it means to live in a tent city in Colorado Springs, the Gazette sent a team of 10 reporters and photographers to fan out over two days to some of the more high-profile clusters near downtown and the west side. We talked to about 50 people, and when it comes to how they became homeless and how they handle it, their stories differ dramatically. Some are there because of the economy, some because they have substance-abuse problems. Some say they want to be there; others want a real roof over their heads.

      But most share some version of the daily routine that begins and ends in a tent. Rather than dig deep into the psyche of homelessness, assess the campers’ reasons for being there or explore the argument of whether homelessness should be difficult so people will be compelled to escape it, our intent was to understand what it takes to live in the camps.

      Why focus on the 300 to 500 campers when there are maybe four times as many other homeless people in Colorado Springs, many of them families who live in shelters or couch surf at friends’ houses? Because this is the population making headlines for trashing creeks and public spaces, repelling people who use the urban trail system and Penrose Library, taxing public services and sparking a City Council discussion on a no-camping ordinance.


      First things first

      Almost every neighborhood in Colorado Springs has an eclectic mix of people and personalities. There’s the guy with the beautiful lawn and the well-kept house, while three doors down is the deadbeat with nothing but dandelions and an old beater in the driveway. Down the block is the rental with the annoying partiers, and across the street is the generous woman who always brings by platters of brownies or cookies, but whose cluttered yard looks like a 24/7 garage sale.

      So it is with the clusters of tents. Some are tidy — or as tidy as they can be on muddy, icy patches of land with little room for storage. Some are eyesores that could be declared Superfund sites. Some are no-drinking. Some are party dens. Some provide a haven to people who want to be left alone, while others foster a sense of family.

      The lesson: You can’t paint the camps and the people who live in them with one brush.

      But the similarities in how the campers live from day to day are striking, starting with shelter. Like Mead, most sleep in tents, though some tuck bedrolls and sleeping bags under lean-tos made from tarps, tree limbs and string. Some campers are fine with nothing more than a two-person tent. Some, however, have created a virtual condo.

      Stephanie Roberts, 21, lives in a big tent with her boyfriend near Cimarron and Eighth streets. Inside is a full bed, chair and propane heater. They’ve decided not to go to the shelter because they’re comfortable where they are.

      “It’s just like any other home,” she says.

      Then there’s “Miss Kitty’s” South Shooks Run spread — a tent nestled inside a roughly 9-by-12-foot space defined by four walls of tarps and a dirt floor. The man who built the structure also built an impressive stone fire pit inside, which she uses for heating and cooking.

      “I’ve got one of the best fire pits around,” Miss Kitty says proudly.

      Miss Kitty and several other campers have an extra tent for storage. She uses hers to keep firewood dry. Others pack extra blankets, food and clothing in storage tents.

      The campers get their tents, sleeping bags, propane heaters and other accoutrements from a variety of sources: social service agencies, friends, friends of friends, other homeless campers and people from the community who come to the camps with donations.

      Charles Henry Demers owned the blankets, Coleman stove and lawn chairs he brought to his west-side camp when he became homeless, but he had to borrow a tent from a friend.

      At Miss Kitty’s camp, where Michelle Mead also lives, there’s also a lot of sharing.

      “We all have to take care of each other. We share blankets and food,” said her 58-year-old neighbor, Earl. “If we don’t watch out for each other, no one else is going to.”

      Meet the neighbors

      Della Winkler: "Residentially challenged"

      Mike Peterson: Tired of the cold

      Charles Henry Demers: Hoping for work

      Rex "Wolfe" Thompson: The future unknown

      Ray: "This is a long-term plan"

      Robert Hardin: A view of the stars

      Earl McCawley: Two tents burned

      "Miss Kitty": Less stress outdoors

      Alvin "Tramp" King: "I prefer it this way"

      Gerald Weissert: No responsibility, and almost no teeth


      "Life in the Meadow," a poem by Miss Kitty

      The day begins

      From the moment they wake up, many campers have one sure destination in mind: the Marian House soup kitchen on West Bijou Street near the interstate. Those with grills or propane stoves might heat up some instant coffee first or grab a snack from whatever food they have stockpiled in their camps.

      But most rely on Marian House for their first real meal of the day, and most will walk there regardless of the weather.

      “I go there to get a balanced meal,” says Mead, who walks about 11/2 miles from her camp near Fountain Boulevard and South Wahsatch Avenue to the soup kitchen.

      The soup kitchen doesn’t open until 10:30 a.m. (8:45 a.m. on Sundays) so Mead walks her dog, Joker, takes care of some errands and puts in volunteer hours that are a requirement for her food stamps. She used to get up at 4 a.m. to look for day labor jobs, “but there ain’t no work,” she laments. It’s a common refrain among campers.

      Others have had better luck at day labor centers. Demers, 48, gets up at 5:30 a.m. most days to go to Apprentice Personnel on West Colorado Avenue and stays for hours waiting for an assignment. During the recent snap of bitter cold weather, he got work at Memorial Hospital near downtown — a job that required him to get up at 3:30 a.m. so he’d have time to walk the five miles to the hospital and get to work on time.

      Alvin “Tramp” King, who lives in a camp just south of the one Miss Kitty and Mead call home, starts his morning scrapping — riding his bike with a small trailer behind it, and picking up cans and other metals — before going to the soup kitchen.

      At a camp near the west-side Safeway, several of the people start their morning going to the store’s bathroom to use the toilet, shave and clean up at the sinks. Then they’ll clean up their camp from the night before. Because they’re too far to go to the Marian House, they get provisions from the Westside CARES pantry or Safeway, then cook the food over a fire.

      One of the west-side campers, Mike Peterson, uses money he gets from day labor jobs he can find to eat at fast-food restaurants.

      With an increase in donations from the community, some campers who could walk to the Marian House are choosing to stay home and cook over a fire or propane stove. David C., whose camp is set up near a frontage road parallel to I-25, says that one day he and his camp mates counted 18 vehicles lined up along the road with donations.

      Miss Kitty and a camper from an area near Cimarron and Eighth streets, 50-year-old Rocky Thomas, say they can’t walk to the Marian House because of health problems, so they rely on donations and food that other campers bring back from the soup kitchen. Miss Kitty uses her fire pit to make ramen — even for breakfast.

      For meals later in the day and weekends, campers rely on Springs Rescue Mission, the Shove Chapel soup kitchen on the Colorado College campus, the Street Church, the Salvation Army canteen and other smaller programs.

      “If you go hungry in Colorado Springs and you’re homeless, you’re stupid,” says Bob, a 58-year-old former Marine who camps near Dorchester Park and has been homeless since October.


      Interactive map of known homeless camps in Colorado Springs


      View Homeless camps in Colorado Springs in a larger map

      Afternoon arrives

      After lunch, some of the campers head to Penrose Library to get warm, read the paper and hop on the computer to check e-mails or look for jobs.

      Bob says he’s been plugging away at the library looking for a job as a mechanic but hasn’t had any luck.

      “You can’t let it get to you,” he says. “You’ve got to keep positive.”

      Mead says her job search is hindered by a lack of transportation. She’s gotten bus passes from social service agencies, but said a person has to have an appointment with a clear destination before getting a pass. That means she can get a pass for a job interview, she said, but not one to gather applications.

      Another post-Marian House destination is the nearby Ecumenical Social Ministries, which is about the only place in town where people who aren’t in shelters or long-term programs can bathe. But only two stalls are available, and the hours are limited: 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday-Friday. Even with a 15-minute-per-person limit, the lines can get long — especially in winter, because campers wait to shower until later in the day when temperatures warm up. ESM officials say only about 34 people a day can grab a shower.

      For Mead, walking to the Marian House and waiting for a shower “takes up a good part of the day” and cuts into time she might spend looking for a job.

      Those who can’t get a shower at ESM might use a bathroom at a park, convenience store or other retail outlet to wash up at the sink. At Thomas’ camp, a good Samaritan will sometimes drop by, round up a few campers and take them to his house to clean up.

      Mostly, though, says Miss Kitty, “It’s easier to stay warm than clean,” and that includes getting clean clothes. Some campers scrape enough money together to do laundry at a coin laundry, or they’ll go to a friend’s place to shower and clean their clothes.

      “But you don’t want to overstay your welcome,” Miss Kitty says.

      Mead has washed some of her belongings in the creek near her tent, “but that’s scary.”

      “Not even a bug lives in that creek,” she says with a wave of her hand.

      VIDEO: Tent City, by reporter Andrea Brown

      AUDIO SLIDESHOW: A conversation with Miss Kitty, by photographer Bryan Oller

      AUDIO SLIDESHOW: Andy and Charlene, by photographer Jerilee Bennett

      Evening settles in

      At many camps, a certain camaraderie builds when the sun goes down and people gather around a roaring fire. Some people cook over the fire; others just hang out to stay warm and catch up with camp mates. A few will play chess or cards.

      At Wayne Garrett’s camp near America the Beautiful Park, they’ll even join in a singalong.

      “We’re like a family,” Garrett says.

      His camp is nondrinking, he says, but it’s no secret that some camps have their share of alcoholics and drug users — though few fess up to having more than a couple of beers or smoking a little pot. Many campers smoke cigarettes, with rollies — roll-your-own cigarettes — a popular choice. Gerald Weissert, who lives near Tramp, collects “snipes,” or butts, removes the tobacco and rerolls it because, he says, he was getting sick from smoking others’ discards.

      Dan Fann, who camps near America the Beautiful, says a lot of people near him do drugs. His lantern was stolen not long ago and someone torched his neighbor’s belongings. He and his wife mostly stay to themselves.

      Safety is a big concern for many of the campers, especially since a rash of attacks since December. Bob says he’s afraid of “quasi homeless” kids who wander around the camps in packs.

      At the South Shooks Run camp where Miss Kitty and Mead live, fear of violence isn’t a huge issue — especially because Mead’s dog is there and barks loudly and often. But they make sure there’s always one person hanging around the camp to watch over their belongings.

      As the evening wears on, the campers crawl back into their tents, many by 8 p.m. They’ll listen to the radio if they have one, or read, or go right to sleep.

      “When it’s cold and dark, you can’t do much else,” Miss Kitty says.

      Every now and then, especially when it’s bitter cold, a good Samaritan will pay for a block of hotel rooms, and the Police Department’s Homeless Outreach Team will go through the camps and let people know they can check in and get out of the elements.

      But most nights, the campers hunker down. They use propane heaters and warming candles, and layer on as much clothing and bedding as they have. Some get resourceful. Weissert has a tent inside a tent to provide insulation. Rex “Wolf” Thompson put cardboard around the perimeter of his tent to keep out the cold, then tossed a quilt between the top of the tent and rain fly for more insulation. Inside, he sleeps with a sleeping bag, two quilts and two blankets. Another camper found carpet remnants to put inside his tent.

      For some campers, though, it’s not enough. Thomas has poor circulation in his legs and deteriorating bone and muscle in his legs and hips. When it gets cold, he says, his legs hurt.

      “You can’t feel them,” he says. “It scares me.”

      A few campers say they don’t mind being homeless.

      But Della Winkler, who was living in her car and now camps near the west-side Safeway, has a different view. Between having to walk a ways to use a bathroom, eat and do laundry, and having to build fires to stay warm, camping is no picnic.

      “You work all day every day just to be homeless,” she says. “Everything is more of a chore out here.“

      Contributing to this story were Gazette staffers Mark Barna, Andrea Brown, John Ensslin, Brian Gomez, Alicia Hocrath, Linda Navarro, Bill Reed, Maria St. Louis-Sanchez, and Duane Wagler.

      Read the editor's note about the use of anonymous sources in this story