River-camp evictions under way
No good options for homeless, critics say
Before sunrise late last week, a cadre of volunteers arrived in boots and work clothes to tackle a mess of debris that had piled up over the years at homeless camps on private property underneath the Broadway Bridge. Volunteers hauled out clothing, bicycles, a couch, a lawn mower and buckets of human waste.
In all, the items bulging in orange garbage bags filled four 40-yard Dumpsters.
This cleanup under the western portion of the bridge near the bike path that connects to Monument Road was prompted in part by one landowner who pleaded for help in cleaning up the area, according to police.
While some homeless advocates and homeless people are protesting moves such as this, more cleanups like the one Thursday should be expected in the future along the Colorado River, said Homeless Outreach Team police officer Cory Tomps.
“It’s not that we want to move people along,” Tomps said. “We try to get people linked up with services.”
Tomps said he was not surprised by the amount of items left by an estimated 50 campers, but “I think the public would be.”
Critics question camp ‘evictions’
That cleanup, and similar efforts that homeless campers and homeless advocates call “evictions,” are a sudden shift from a recently developed 10-year plan to end homelessness, opponents have said.
“There has always been a rule about camping but it hasn’t been enforced,” said Sherry Cole, program manager at Grand Valley Peace and Justice. “There’s a lot of questions about why now. Until we have services, there’s no place for them to go.”
Indeed, a number of success stories have surfaced over the past 18 months since the HOT police have been patrolling common homeless camps. With the help of area services, a number of campers have been reunited with families. Some have moved into more permanent homes or now stay at the Homeward Bound homeless shelter.
But it appears many of the more staunch campers who are more difficult to get into housing are increasingly being “evicted,” Cole said.
Cole said some campers who have received notices to vacate have contacted Peace and Justice distressed about losing their belongings and their longtime homes. She said even on the day Gov. John Hickenlooper arrived in Grand Junction in late May to celebrate the unveiling of the 10-year plan to end homelessness locally, some groups including the HOT police cleaned up homeless camps on the north side of the Colorado River across from the former Point, a homeless encampment that volunteers cleaned up in March. Agencies asked that Peace and Justice support removing the camp in May, but the nonprofit group declined because there was no other place for the campers to go.
“They are forcing people to move but shouldn’t we wait until we get started on the 10-year plan?” Cole said.
Soon after that cleanup, a number of homeless people and homeless advocates showed up at a Grand Junction City Council meeting to protest the evictions. City officials at the time said they were enforcing an ordinance that allows them to remove abandoned items that are left by campers. Per policy, notices of the cleanup were left on tents and items about a week in advance. Through regular contact with homeless in camps, some homeless may know far more than a month in advance that an area is slated for a cleanup, Tomps said.
A better place to live
Grand Junction’s plan to end homelessness in the next decade has been about two years in the making. The document compiled by umbrella group Grand Valley Coalition for the Homeless outlines aspects of helping the less fortunate get into housing and thrive once they are there. That includes goals for helping the homeless access services such as finding or creating employment, getting into affordable homes quickly, closing gaps in medical and mental health services, and keeping the community aware of the homeless issues.
An estimated 1,200 to 1,400 people are homeless in Grand Junction. That number includes people camping outdoors, and those staying with other families in their homes and living out of cars and motels.
About a year ago Grand Junction City councilors spoke at length in meetings on ways to help reduce the impact of homelessness in the Grand Valley. They spoke of adding some kind of restrooms and Dumpsters along the Colorado Riverfront Trail to deter garbage and waste from piling up. Councilors also swiftly backed neighbors in the Hawthorne Park area when families protested that too many homeless people were hanging out in the park at all hours.
Councilor Tom Kenyon said last week he believes council members have given police the direction “to protect the riverfront identity.”
“We believe that there’s someplace better for those people to live,” Kenyon said. “I’m sympathetic to those people. It’s just not possible for them to trespass and want to do that. We have to enforce the law.”
Grand Junction Deputy Chief John Zen said the latest cleanup is doing a service to homeless campers.
“For those people who want to live in squalor, I think we are doing the responsible thing,” he said.
“I don’t think we have any more good excuses for why we’re not cleaning up the camps. They are illegal. Service providers tell us there is ample space. We are also concerned about the safety issues.”
‘We keep ourselves clean’
Both sides agree that providing notice for homeless camps and coming back to clean up camps likely will result in some campers simply moving somewhere else down the river.
Tomps said Grand Junction’s HOT police are following the model set up in Colorado Springs. At the height of its homeless encampments there, officials determined there were about 600 people living in a tent city. After the installation of the HOT police to make contact with homeless to get them services, the number dwindled by 2010 to about 100 to 125 campers. Authorities there still regularly clean up homeless camps.
The city enacted a no-camping ban, but it also provided motel rooms for homeless people provided they looked for work while being housed. Seventy of those people who received hotel rooms found jobs, while 80 homeless people moved back in with family, according to Colorado Springs’ news reports.
As local efforts are under way to clean up homeless camps, Grand Junction does not have a similar plan to house those affected in motels or anywhere else.
And, depending on where homeless camps are located, the city may not have jurisdiction in clearing out camps.
One homeless man, Mark Jones, who also lives under a local bridge, said he was contacted by HOT police. Jones said police want him to move, but they can’t make him because he’s not on private property. Jones, who has been in Grand Junction for two months and looking for work, said he would simply move his belongings to another location along the river if he received an eviction notice.
“I don’t mean to be a nuisance to anybody,” he said. “People like me are scattered along the river.”
Jones said he saw the latest effort to clean up the riverfront and agreed with it because campers had been disrespectful to the land.
The 50-year-old skilled steel worker said he would probably turn down an offer for housing because he wants to earn his own way and is opposed to government handouts.
“There are people, good people, working their way through a bad economy,” he said of himself and some other campers. “You won’t see us on the street corner flagging anybody down. We keep ourselves clean.”