Thoughts on “should community members use an app to report homeless camps?”
You may know that, when you write a column in the paper, you are limited by a maximum word count. For that reason, important information gets truncated or omitted entirely from some columns. Such was the case with my column, which appeared in the local paper today (and follows this meandering contemplation).
I wanted to include information about the relative cost savings to systems if — instead of criminalizing homelessness — a community truly invests in providing housing (roughly 50% reduction in the cost to taxpayers, conservatively). I wanted to include information about some of the strides we’ve made as a community in terms of investing in housing. I wanted to include a more specific invitation to action. But mostly, after my column was set to print, I wanted to include this story.
On Tuesday of this week, a neighbor I know and care about asked to meet with me. I was overwhelmed and scattered on Tuesday, so I asked him if it could wait. He said he just wanted to talk with me about clean-up efforts and it could, so when I saw him on Thursday I was surprised when — as I approached him — his eyes welled up with tears.
For as long as I’ve known him, this man has been homeless. But “homeless” isn’t the most interesting identifier for him, nor is it the truest. He is also smart. Outspoken. Tough. Resilient. Funny. Helpful. He said he wanted to share ideas about keeping the Westside CARES property cleaner, but it was clear that he was also distraught and craved connection.
That’s the thing at Westside CARES. Someone may be one thing but they are always also something else. We are all full of humanness — brimming with contradictions and qualities and skills. Everyone — and all their alsos — is welcome in our community.
This man has been on our community “by name list” for years. So far, no housing opportunity has come up that matches his income/potential/needs. That’s not terribly surprising because we have such a limited amount of housing available, but it is sad. He was upset on Thursday, however, because he had just received a camping ticket. He said it was his fourth in the last six or so weeks, and he also said that his belongings were taken by a cleanup crew. What’s more, he missed court on his first camping ticket because he was receiving another ticket while he should have been going to court.
When someone misses court, a warrant is issued for their arrest on a “failure to appear” charge. Sometimes, if they present at the courthouse and explain why they missed their court date, a new one will be issued. Sometimes, they are taken to CJC in handcuffs on that FTA warrant.
The man with whom I met wanted to clear up his FTA so he could go to the court on his other tickets. He truly wants to get right with the law and wants to get inside so he can be helpful and smart and funny and resilient while also being housed.
You may not know this, but the City did establish a special system for dealing with these FTA warrants for people who want to ameliorate their own conditions. The City also established a special homeless court for people who cannot pay fines or should not do jail time owing to the pettiness of their infraction. Unfortunately, this man can’t show up for the latter until he accomplishes the former — and he may have to serve some jail time because the special system for FTA warrants doesn’t have an upcoming date for rescheduling court appearances.
You see, it’s not such a simple thing to navigate. I’m not sure how to advise him.
Either way, if and when he makes it to the homeless court, he may be assigned community service or he may be required to meet with a case worker. So, either way, he ends up back on my doorstep, still on the community by-name-list.
It’s okay. I like to see him, to know he’s still resilient. I guess, when he does, we’ll finally be able to talk about his clean-up ideas.
It is said that necessity is the mother of all invention, and the City of Colorado Springs now has a tidy feature on their app that allows community members to click a button to report a homeless camp. Should people use it? Apparently, they already do.
What they might not know is what happens when they do.
That click initiates a visit from the CSPD Homeless Outreach Team (HOT), which posts the area with “tags” warning people to vacate the premises. Many people pack up their belongings and relocate their camp. Some stay and receive a camping ticket. The City knows that very few campers avail themselves of shelter beds, for reasons as diverse as the people themselves but which — almost to the person — boil down to trauma and fear.
If the pandemic has taught us nothing, it’s how dangerously close we all are to the economic edge, and how escalating housing prices affect us all. Must we villfy people experiencing homelessness to such an extent that we can’t understand the impulse to resist shelters? Nevermind that documented COVID-19 cases among people experiencing homelessness in the city are on the rise. Nevermind that the CDC has advised against camp displacements. You failed at capitalism, get thee to the shelter.
When people don’t head directly to the shelter, the cost of confrontation with CSPD and clean up is more than their sense of dignity. Keep Colorado Springs Beautiful, the primary contractor for City camp cleanups, received over $179,000 in 2017 in fee-for-service. How many of those camps were secondary or tertiary sites, cleaned up because the first site was “tagged”? We can only guess.
Even if no cleanup is required, two officers respond to each report, and the lowest pay rate for CSPD is $27.23 an hour. Each confrontation, then, conservatively costs around $100 (an hour spent on the initial complaint and an hour spent following up), and if a ticket is issued and everything goes perfectly, it’s another $100 in municipal court time. If things go less than perfectly, it’s $89 a night in jail. I don’t know exactly how many reports of camps come in each year, but I’m told it’s the most-often used feature in the app. One a day would be, conservatively, $36,500 a year in hard costs responding to camps.
Wouldn’t all this money be better spent creating housing opportunities for people? When last I checked, the list of people experiencing homelessness who desperately want to find housing, and not just a shelter bed, was over 700. Until we can do something other than sink $5m into shelter beds, municipal efforts to criminalize homelessness fall flat.
We can all agree that most camps are unsightly. Westside CARES initiated a cleanup program at the request of our neighbors experiencing homelessness because they care deeply about our community and the impacts of camping. We should be outraged not because we have to see the camps, but because of the underlying conditions that necessitate camping in the first place and the misallocation of resources that occurs when we — as a city — accept that we can effectively police our way out of poverty.
Yes, we should do something about it. We should be screaming in the streets with compassion for our brothers and sisters. We should demand more affordable housing, more eviction prevention programs, more residential rehab facilities, more permanent supportive housing. The very things that evidence supports as effective solutions to the problem of poverty and not just the manifestations of it.
But yeah, if you want to, go ahead and click a button on an app. Just know what happens — and doesn’t — when you stop there.