Seven things runners (and everybody else) should know about homeless camps
I recently read a missive denigrating a race that listed, among its complaints, the “urban” section of trail and — more specifically — the presence of people experiencing homelessness within that section.
As a runner, I understand. You’re on your favorite trail, or participating in an organized event and you encounter a tent (or several). You might see it as a blight or resent the interruption of your contemplative time by a presence of societal scourge. It’s irritating because you have a heart, not because you don’t.
But as an employee of an emergency services organization who works regularly with people experiencing homelessness, I see these camps, and the people who live in them, a little differently, and there are a few things I think every runner should know:
1.) People in these camps would rather be living inside.
I get it. We’ve all seen that tv interview of somebody experiencing homelessness who says “I choose this lifestyle.” To me, nothing is more infuriating than this repudiation of having a home, because in my five years of working with people experiencing homelessness I have never found it to be true. Not once.
Have you ever been broken up with or fired from a job? If you have, maybe you’ve entertained that kneejerk reaction that comes naturally: the I-didn’t-want-you-anyway and forget-you-and-this-stupid-job one. It is a natural instinct to avoid rejection by rejecting the very thing of which we’ve been deprived. Or, as is more often the case with people experiencing homelessness, they have abandoned the notion that they deserve anything better than sleeping on the dirt. They have lost all faith in both humanity and their innate dignity (which exists whether it is affirmed by them or not). So much of the work I do involves cajoling people into believing that they are worth something.
Of course, there are people who choose “outside” over a shelter, but I’ll say more about that in #2.
Consider this: in the 2020 Pikes Peak Region’s Point in Time Count (which was the last time a comprehensive count was conducted, owing to COVID), there were 1,339 people experiencing homelessness that participated in the survey. Of those 1,339 people, 358 were entirely unsheltered. On March 9, 2022, the list of people who had actively engaged in searching for housing solutions within the last three months — all of whom are currently houseless and the vast majority of whom currently sleep “rough” — contained 580 people. Some of these 580 people check in with us every day to see if there is anything they can do to move closer to housing, but of course, the inventory and opportunity for affordable housing or supportive housing in our community (and nation) is woefully inadequate, and, on average, one person is placed into a housing opportunity each week.
The bottom line is, these people want to be housed. They want to be inside. A few of them don’t believe they deserve it, and our lack of communal and societal commitment to ensuring housing affordability reinforces that belief, creating a spiral that sends some of them off the list, because they give up and stop checking in.
2. For many people experiencing homelessness, “just going to the shelter” is not an option.
Imagine this scenario: you’re traveling overseas in a remote area, and all your belongings have been stolen. It’s getting dark and you have $5 in your pocket, enough to stay in a local youth hostel for the night that’s about 2 miles away… or, you can curl up right here, on the beach. Which do you choose?
I, like you, am a grown-ass person. I try to adhere to both societal standards and the law wherever I can. Maybe that compliant part of my personality wins the day and I walk 40 minutes to the youth hostel where I am guaranteed, at least, a mat on the floor with 50 total strangers, many of whom smell and some of whom cough all night. Or, maybe I curl up right here on the beach, and listen to the waves and watch the stars. It’s tough to say what I’d do, but this theoretical conundrum makes it easier to understand why someone might not choose the shelter.
Of course, you and I might not have PTSD. We might not have panic attacks in a space with 50 or more other people. We’re runners, so we’re probably not medically compromised — the walk to the shelter isn’t a difficult one for us, and we’re not terribly worried about the person next to us who coughs and farts all night. And we are not “medically banned” from the shelters. The most recent conversation I had with outreach workers illuminated that we have as many as 20 people experiencing homelessness in our community who are too sick to be cared for at a shelter. They’re not sick enough to be cared for in a hospital, but they’re too sick for the shelter. Can you imagine? I can’t.
What’s more, our total emergency shelter bed count in the Pikes Peak region is 863 — 476 beds shy of our community’s most recent comprehensive Point In Time count. If every person experiencing homelessness “just went” to the shelter, 476 of them would be denied.
3.) Homeless camps are safer than many neighborhoods.
Although there are many people who do similar work to mine, many of them never set foot in a camp. Because I believe that sometimes you have to meet people where they are, and I’ve been to dozens of camps. Not once, not ever, have I not been welcomed. What’s more, I kind of like knowing where people are — as a runner, I’ve had a fistful of verbal altercations with other housed people; it happens that occasionally I’m not mindful and I get in the way, or I can be too friendly with direction-seekers. I like to know where people are, because I know that if things go really sideways, these campers are the ones who are going to hear me call for help and be brave enough to step in. I’ll never forget a woman experiencing homelessness accosting me on the trail to warn me of a problem up ahead in the middle of a snowstorm. These people take care of each other in a way we don’t in our neighborhoods today because they have to work together to survive. A recent study on homeless camps found no correlation between camps and crime, and it remains true that crimes within these camps are most likely to victimize the people living in them. Not everyday runners passing by.
4.) Many people experiencing homelessness are nature enthusiasts and most of them are long-distance athletes.
When I started my job, I wanted to learn as much as I could about the conditions of poverty and homelessness. I asked gazillion questions of people experiencing both, and I even conducted a few experiments. In one such experiment, I asked people experiencing homelessness to wear pedometers for a week because I wondered how much walking was required for survival. Whether they were going to the pantry or the shelter or to an agency, the average mileage logged by volunteers was 40 miles a week. Just to stay alive. As a runner, it’s humbling knowing that these people are endurance athletes just like me — and not because their fitbit is counting steps, but because it is necessary for survival.
I asked people about their experience living outside, the gazillion questions, and a theme began to emerge. They love the natural world. They want to appreciate and take care of the planet. They urged me to organize clean-ups of the creekbed, which I happily did. We have hosted six or seven of these and the number of participants experiencing homelessness (or who recently experienced homelessness) always exceeds the number of volunteers who are housed. Always.
“So why is there still so much trash?” you ask. Read on, dear runner.
5.) The presence of trash on trails and in camps is a complicated problem, very little of which has to do with personal responsibility of the people experiencing homelessness.
Let’s go back to that overseas trip — all of your stuff has been stolen. Suddenly, it’s returned to you, but minus the luggage. All the clothing and toiletry items you carefully packed; your books and electronics; your prescriptions; your snacks. It’s all in a heap at your feet. (It’s worth noting that this is roughly what my house looks like on a Friday afternoon — an explosion of stuff everywhere). How would you keep all your belongings together without adequate containers? And even if you had the luggage and containers, you would still need to rummage through them regularly to access the essentials for living. Do you fold everything back into its appropriate place when you’re living out of a suitcase? Do you get up immediately to throw away the potato chip bag when you’ve eaten the last chip? I know I don’t. The messes I make languish, but I can disguise them within the four walls of my home. Lucky me.
Just over a decade ago, the Pikes Peak region had a budget crisis. I’m not sure if you remember, but it made national news because we decided to cut costs by turning streetlights off, closing bathrooms, and removing trashcans from our trail system. Within a year, the budget crisis averted, streetlights were back on. But most of trail trashcans were never replaced. On my long runs, I can sometimes go five or six miles in the urban center without seeing a trashcan. In fact, it’s one of the biggest complaints I hear from people experiencing homelessness — the lack of trash disposal opportunities. Sometimes, I won’t walk 10 feet to throw away an empty chip bag. Would I walk ten miles to do it? Probably not.
6.) You’re not seeing more and more camps, you’re seeing them move around from place to place.
I’ve written before about the incredible costs of criminalizing homelessness through repeated camp displacements, and the impact of sanitizing the experience of reporting camps (and what happens after they’re reported). I won’t belabor points I’ve already made, but I will state the obvious: every time a camp is broken up by law enforcement the people who live there have to find somewhere else to be. Most of them have high hopes and good intentions after a displacement, and yet, in the face of the incredible onus of relocating their life’s possessions and staying alive, most of them fail to make it to the shelter, or to anywhere really — they just find the next safest place until they’re kicked out of there too. I’ve heard it said that if we (as a community) can just make it hard enough for people to live outside here, they’ll either get inside or find somewhere else to live outside. But the questions remain: get inside to where? We already know there aren’t enough shelter beds for everyone experiencing homelessness, let alone homes. And who, exactly, is responsible for getting them to another community? Last I heard, no one in the Pikes Peak region was helping with bus tickets out of town. So people are stuck, a reality for which we punish them over and over.
7.) Homeless camps contain human beings.
I know this seems self-evident, but sometimes it’s not. You see a mess of tents on the side of the trail and you forget that human beings live inside them. Human beings with parents, or children, or siblings. Human beings who shiver through cold, wet nights, who swelter in the summer, who experience hunger and pain, and longing. Who dream of a better future. Who have talents and skills, and who expend most of their time and energy just trying to survive.
So often, people ask me about these human beings as individuals — as a society, we tend to paint them with too broad a brush and to cast them as villains who are categorically lazy, or addicted to substances, or struggling with mental health challenges. Outside of the aforementioned qualities (having family, having talents, having dreams), the only throughline I can see among people experiencing homelessness is trauma. I’ve said before that most people living outside have survived experiences you and I can’t imagine someone living through, sometimes as early as infancy. Couple that with the trauma of even one night sleeping “on the streets” and a system that fails time and time again, for most people, the cumulative effect is complex PTSD. Indeed there can be an occurrence of mental health challenges and/or substance use disorder, but this co-occurrence is frequently present in response to the complex PTSD experienced by our neighbors and not the cause of their homelessness.
A few years ago, I ran in a start-up race with a really small field size. That time too, someone complained that the race ran through several homeless camps. What I wrote in response to that complaint rings true today, and I’ll close with it:
I cannot abide the criticism of the race on the basis of the very presence of people experiencing homelessness on the trail system.
People struggle. Not everyone can afford a $25 race fee, $100 sneakers, time off work to train for a race, travel or babysitting costs to make race time possible. Fellow runners, we are fortunate as hell.
I recognize that it might be inconvenient or unsightly for runners to come face-to-face with the human evidence of economic systemic failure. You might prefer not to have to see it. Which, of course, is precisely why you should.
I know this may not be a popular notion, but I am grateful for every opportunity I have to be kind to someone on what is likely the worst day of their life. I’m grateful for my own accident of birth, which allowed me to participate in the race. And I’m grateful for the chance to remind myself and others that the world is both beautiful and brutal… and we’re all in this together.
The common ground is literally beneath our feet.