Being neighborly in the Springs increasingly means forming bonds with those suffering homelessness
Stacie Gonzalez | February 14, 2018
The first known use of the word “neighbor” dates back to before the 12th century when it was used to refer to “a person living near another, on the same street or even in the same village.”
Nine hundred years later, the word’s meaning hasn’t changed other than to reinforce that a neighbor is also “a fellow human being.”
So, it’s not a stretch to call the area tucked into the banks of Fountain Creek, near the Westside’s Red Rock Canyon shopping center, a neighborhood. Sandwiched between the Midland Trail and businesses like Walgreens, Safeway and Supercuts, each with reeking blue dumpsters behind them, sits a collection of tents, staked to the soil.
Depending on which side of the creek you stand on, the eye picks out different details: a wheelchair, an ornamental birdcage, a shopping cart, a broom, rain jackets neatly hung to dry from tree limbs, organized bins, a welcome mat, people chatting. Linger and you may get a more embarrassing view: someone cleaning his belongings or himself in the creek waters below.
Fountain Creek, a tributary of the Arkansas River, is just shy of 75 miles long and meanders from its point of origin near Woodland Park, through El Paso County, to Pueblo. Long before Colorado gained statehood, the creek provided life-sustaining water to wildlife, Native Americans and early settlers. A June 23, 1877, Gazette article describes the creek’s picturesque beauty at great length and notes that medicinal waters, in the form of mineral springs, bubble up in multiple places along its length.
The creek is still beautiful. But now it bears silent witness to the struggles and frustrations of the Springs’ swelling homeless population. Standing on its banks near the Red Rock Canyon shopping center, it’s clear that two worlds are colliding. While area workers and homeless campers are neighbors in the true sense of the word, they experience this place quite differently.
And not just here. All over the city, similar scenarios play out as housing prices rise and more people squeeze into the urban area.
The Colorado State Demography Office estimates that El Paso County will grow by over 58 percent by 2050, adding 410,163 residents. It’s hard to imagine that our homeless population won’t grow in step. The annual homeless headcount in El Paso County and Colorado Springs, completed as a requirement for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, found that our homeless population jumped from 1,302 to 1,415 between 2016 and 2017, and — in a sign that shelters aren’t keeping up — those listed as unsheltered leaped from 311 to 457.
Officer Tim Kippel, of the Colorado Springs Police Department’s Homeless Outreach Team, says the addition of 150 extra mats at an emergency shelter opened in January means that police have begun enforcing the city’s ban on camping on public property again. (Police weren’t doing that very much previously because shelters were full.) The temporary emergency shelter, still unknown to many homeless campers, has actually opened up space at all the city’s normally packed shelters.
But there are still far more people living on the streets (likely hundreds more than accounted for in the headcount) than the shelters can hold.
Despite that, Dave Munger, executive director of the Council of Neighbors and Organizations, which organizes and advocates on behalf of neighborhoods, says he’s heard surprisingly little from area homeowners. “I’m not quite sure why,” Munger says, “but it hasn’t been a significant issue so far.”
Perhaps that silence reflects a sobering reality: There’s little that can be done to immediately solve the city’s homeless crisis. Until more affordable housing and shelters are opened, the homeless and housed will have to find a way to live in some degree of harmony, as neighbors. That relationship-building remains a work in progress for many locals. Here are some of their stories.
Mary and Pete Dykas, Westside
Mary and Pete Dykas met in the third grade. Married for 47 years, they say, “If one of us goes the other goes too. That’s our arrangement and our kids all know it.”
The Dykases came to Colorado in 2004. The parents of seven children, they owned a home and a car, and ran the Mountainscape Inn, located in the Westside area known as No Man’s Land, for seven years. One online review of the Inn reads: “Mary runs the property and is the epitome of graciousness and thoughtfulness without being intrusive. She is quite lovely and genuinely cares about the comfort of her guests.”
Mary is just as hospitable now, despite the fact she and her husband currently call a three-room tent on the south side of Fountain Creek home. “Come in and sit down,” she says, as she motions to an inflatable mattress.
Mary, 65, and Pete, 67, say one of their children stole all the money they had in a savings account one year ago and things went downhill quickly from there; now they live off Pete’s Social Security income. It isn’t the discomfort or unfairness of her situation that Mary wants to talk about, however, it’s the way people have changed that confounds her.
“When we were at Mountainscape, we used money out of our own pockets to feed people every third Saturday. All those businesses used to donate food to help people — Walgreens, Safeway, Bob’s [Westside] Liquors and Pizza Hut,” she recounts as she points across the creek. “We cooked a lot of food. People from everywhere came, including members of [the Colorado Springs Police Homeless Outreach Team]. The United Way even called me and asked if I would let people use our motel rooms, and I did.
“For years, we fed local kids hot meals and helped the homeless. Now, I’m homeless and condemned. There are a lot of people out here who really need help. We get a check for $900/month and spend most of it on feeding people.”
Mary looks at Pete, and Pete nods his head in confirmation. Their nylon home defies homeless stereotypes: Their space is clean inside and out; the dirt beyond their welcome mat is even swept flat.
Mary and Pete are matter-of-fact and angry when talking about their year living on the street. Mary describes the dangers of living outside on the outskirts of the city and rattles off the names of each homeless person who has died over the past few years. The couple talks about the strained relationship they have with one person who works in the shopping center. The area’s homeless, Mary says, spend a lot of money there on “batteries, water, and propane” and some people depend on the stores’ dumpsters for food. But one staffer doesn’t like that. “I’ve watched her tear open bags of cookies, throw them in the dumpster and pour bleach all over them,” Mary says. “Comet, too.”
As cars come and go through the nearby parking lot, Mary says the sense of community she knew years ago is only a whisper of what it once was. She says homelessness can happen to anyone. If you lose your home, it is very difficult to save up a rental deposit plus first and last months’ rent on one paycheck. If you don’t have transportation and a place to safely store your belongings while you search for a place to live and work, life becomes incredibly difficult.
The neighbors she can count on now are the campers she cooks next to, feeds and shares a sense of family with, not workers at businesses that prosper 200 hundred feet away, or the handful of bicyclists who race down the Midland Trail just above her.
The couple’s income will double this month when Mary’s Social Security kicks in, likely enabling them to afford future rent. But, Mary says decidedly, “I want to keep doing this. When we get out of here, we’re going to keep doing what we’ve been doing for the last 12 years — helping people.
“I’m going to buy five acres of land, put tents on it, and fence it in. People can stay there until they get stable. People who can pay will pay. We’ll make a garden and help people get on their feet and get out of there, you know?”
Nine days after our interview, Mary and Pete were displaced by law enforcement officials and forced to set up another makeshift camp on the Westside of Colorado Springs. Two weeks after that, with the help of a friend, Mary and Pete found an apartment to call home. Mary says, “It’s like being in heaven.”
The Bookman, Westside
The Bookman, a family-owned new and used book store, sits just to the north of where Mary and Pete had camped, at 3163 W. Colorado Ave.
Owners Arthur and Kelly Klipple, along with manager Steffany Boucher, say they’ve worked hard to create an atmosphere of warmth and community in their store over the past four years.
“We love our customers,” Steffany, 42, says with a smile. “They come in and they tell us their stories. There’s a different connection you have with each person and we want to foster that connection.” Steffany says she wants every customer who enters The Bookman to feel welcome.
Most days pass peacefully at this store, where Colorado authors are prominently featured, cookies or brownies sit on the store counter, and long rows of gently loved books beckon. Classical music floats in and out of the stacks encouraging customers to enjoy the tranquility and security a bookstore provides. In a shopping center where rents are as high as those found in Denver, The Bookman manages to maintain a loyal following of locals and to stay afloat. Even Chris and Eric Verlo, who originally opened The Bookman in 1992, stop in regularly to say hello.
But Steffany says that having a large homeless camp directly behind the business proves difficult and emotional. “I’ve seen a lot,” she says, as Mr. Gray the Cat hops onto the counter. “We’ve had a couple of experiences with vandalism and employees being threatened. I hit a breaking point recently, and I don’t want to get to a place where I don’t have compassion.
“Now we’re looking into self-defense courses for our employees, having additional security cameras installed, and limiting the use of our restrooms and phone.”
Despite these unsettling events, Steffany remains thoughtful. “You can’t allow fear to be your driver,” she says. “Your driver must be your empathy, your compassion and your self-preservation. I think people who are opposed to offering the homeless more resources have only seen one side of it. If they could understand the spectrum of reasons for homelessness as opposed to believing the homeless are just choosing to do that while living off others’ tax dollars, then I think people would soften a little bit.”
Steffany says that while her homeless neighbors aren’t always easy to work by, “Everyone is human, and everyone makes mistakes. I think the problem is that people will have a bad experience with the homeless and it becomes a stereotype. People need to see the ones who stand out.”
Steffany says for her, that was Sam, a man in his early 20s who came in to the store one day to ask about a job. He seemed, she says, very kind.
“A customer later told me that she took him to a shelter because he was living out of an abandoned car and it was getting too cold.” Steffany pauses as her eyes tear up and she reaches for a tissue.
“Sorry,” she says, chuckling with embarrassment. “It’s just that I think if people could meet Sammy, they would want more shelters. He’s highly intelligent, loves books and cats, and wants to go to college. He is a very sweet person … made of light.”
Paul Heimbuch, Westside
Paul Heimbuch’s weathered face peeks out from a mat of graying, unkempt hair. He rests his hand, protected by a black, fingerless mitten, on a chain-link fence below the Midland Trail. This is Paul’s home.
An affable ex-con, who moved to Colorado in 1994, Paul says he became homeless after being released from prison a year ago. Now, he appreciates the companionship of his neighbors. “We’re pretty much the only support system we’ve got within ourselves,” he says. “A lot of our families don’t have interactions with us, so we kind of pick who our family is now and stick together, help each other. Like, when we move, we’ll all pitch in and stay together. Eatin’ and stayin’ warm are our main challenges every day. It’s the hardest thing I’ve worked for.”
When asked about the relationship he and his homeless neighbors have with the nearby businesses, Paul laments, “Business owners think it’s a war against us, they think we’re hurting their business, but we’re on land nobody uses. We keep everything clean. I don’t know who’s complaining about us because who are we hurting really?”
He continues, “[Business owners] ain’t made no move to make a relationship with us — we haven’t either with them. We’re over here, they’re over there. A conversation couldn’t hurt. If one of them loses their job next week, they could be camping right here next to us; it’s that simple.”
Many, however, don’t see homelessness as simply financial, believing that mental health issues and substance abuse keep people on the streets. And in some cases, that’s probably true. The 2017 homeless headcount found that of 249 local, chronically homeless, unsheltered people, 120 had a mental illness and 97 struggled with substance abuse. (Each category is counted separately, though some people have both conditions).
Asked about that, Paul says, “The street drugs and alcohol are self-medication for a lot of them. If you look at reality — what we’ve got here — we’re livin’ in a tent, freezing at night. The drugs help escape reality of what you’re livin’. I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy, living like this. It’s not real nice.”
Mike, a friend of Paul’s, steps up to the fence and quickly interjects: “Not everybody’s out here because of drugs or alcohol.”
Mike says he just turned 41 and has been homeless off and on since he was 15 years old. He describes his life as a constant battle of getting on his feet only to have them kicked out from under him. These days, he says he can’t find a job because he must provide around-the-clock care to his wife who suffers from severe heart palpitations and uses a wheelchair. But what frustrates him most, he says, is feeling invisible.
“It’s like homelessness is better off not being seen,” he says. “That problem isn’t even there if you can’t see it.”
Mike wishes the city would set aside a piece of land where the homeless could stay and not worry about having to move repeatedly. He suggests that an unincorporated area of Bear Creek Regional Park might be a solution. “Stick us somewhere on a couple of acres of land where we’re out of sight, out of mind,” he says.
If that isn’t possible, he thinks a cold weather shelter on the Westside would be nice too.
Susan Adams and Neal Davis, Mill Street
Seven miles across town, 70-year-old newlyweds Susan Adams and Neal Davis are enjoying a lazy Sunday morning together.
Neal puts his yard work on pause and invites this reporter into his home for a conversation about his homeless neighbors. Susan holds the front door open to their 750-square-foot home on Mill Street, while she cradles a cup of coffee in her hands and tightens the belt on her soft, plush fleece robe.
Neal, a retired corporate IT specialist, looks content as he settles into a chair in their living room. “We invested time to buy a house and keep the property nice and meet the neighbors,” he says. “This is our community and we have never had an issue with the homeless here. They’re real friendly and sometimes ask if we have any work they can do.”
This is significant because Neal and Susan, a retired educator, live right around the corner from the Salvation Army Shelter & Services at R.J. Montgomery, which houses and feeds up to 220 people each night.
Neal says he knows not everyone welcomes their homeless neighbors, especially as their population swells. “I think we live in a very cynical society and we always assume the worst,” he says. “We should be able to sit down with anybody. We have so much in common. It’s just our different circumstances in life that separate us. I think if people just reached out and talked, and heard the stories…”
He trails off and smiles at his wife. They both feel grateful for the good life they share together, they’re thankful they have a support system of family and friends — something many homeless people lack.
Neal and Susan say they discuss the growing homeless population regularly, but are uncertain how they can truly help. The couple thinks the city, on the other hand, could do more, starting with providing better public transit so homeless people can get and keep jobs. Perhaps homeless people could also help with city events, they muse, like Olympic City celebrations. Or maybe the city could turn downtown’s Martin Drake Power Plant into a shelter.
When Neal imagines what it might be like to be homeless, he just slowly shakes his head and says, “I could not stand not knowing where I was going to eat or sleep tomorrow. I’m all about security.”
Susan nods in agreement. “It is a possibility for anybody to have that happen,” she says. “That would be so hard. I’d be down there at R.J. Montgomery’s door every day, exactly at the time you can come in and sign up to spend the night, so at least I’d have a warm place to sleep.”
Neal says many of his neighbors feel just as he does. “They feel for the people, he says. “They wish there was something more they could do.”
April W., Mill Street
Not far from Neal and Susan’s cozy home, April W. has been evicted from a shelter after missing its 10 p.m. curfew the night before.
She sits slouched against the shelter’s brick wall, wrapped in blankets and surrounded by an array of plastic bags, a red suitcase, and a stuffed shopping cart. Her bottles of shampoo and conditioner and a can of soda have leaked all over her clothes and shoes.
She is angry, and wondering where she can pee now that the shelter has refused her entry, even to use the restroom or get a drink of water.
Her housed neighbors are the least of her worries. “There is no issue or anything about the people in the neighborhood,” she says. “The people in the neighborhood are alright; they don’t treat the people bad.”
Her beef is with the shelter. April says she was held up in Teller County following a day of job interviews because she witnessed someone having a heart attack while driving. Although she says she brought back business cards for the police officers who questioned her about the event, she says shelter staff still kicked her out.
“I used to be a homeowner,” she says. “I had a vehicle. My truck was stolen. I lost my home. I’m sick. I have a blood clotting disorder, and I broke my back and was supposed to have surgery. Now I’m homeless and on the street. I raised seven kids and put them through college. I wasn’t always like this.”
She adds,”I mean, like, I just got a job. I’m supposed to go back up to Teller County. I need a shower and where am I supposed to put my stuff?”
April was eventually picked up by a Blackbird Outreach volunteer, her belongings tossed in the back of a white pick-up truck, and relocated.
Debbie Nejtek, Ivywild
West of South Nevada Avenue, the diverse, lower-middle-income Ivywild neighborhood is in the midst of a facelift.
New Nevada Avenue businesses are replacing low-rent motels, which in turn means that the area’s homeless population is on the move and looking for shelter. Frequently, they wander into Ivywild.
Debbie Nejtek, 58, has lived in Ivywild since 1981.
“I’ve seen a lot of change, it’s probably been the most rapid in the last several years,” she says. “The homeless situation has gotten worse. The old word we used to use was ‘transient,’ which implied they were on their way somewhere else, just passing through, and that has definitely changed.”
Debbie’s home reflects both her artistic style and cautious demeanor. Rich red and brown bohemian accents and comfortable sofas make the little home welcoming, but the lock that weaves in and out of her patio furniture hints at another reality. Debbie explains that because of the neighborhood’s proximity to Interstate 25, a convenience store and other businesses, it has become a thoroughfare for homeless people. They are no longer transient; they are her neighbors.
Debbie recounts several instances where she has interacted with homeless people. “We’ve been stolen from; we’ve had people hide under our deck; I’ve gone out and found a gentleman that was having some sort of a seizure by our car where we park,” she says. “He wanted me to drive him somewhere because he needed his meds. And one woman would come into the yard and steal things!
“My husband and I spent two summers re-doing our front porch. We had saved our tax return money to buy decent furniture and they stole our pillows off the front porch. It’s nerve-wracking. Years ago, I used to lock the front gate to keep my son in the yard and now I lock the gate to keep people out. It’s a shame.”
Debbie calls the police more often these days. She says that homeless people are a lot more confrontational now that the American Civil Liberties Union has been defending their rights in the face of anti-camping and other laws passed by cities.
“The homeless people know what their rights are, but as far as fearing for my safety, I really don’t,” she says. “I’ve always felt safe in this neighborhood. I know that there’s a lot of mental illness with the homeless and that’s a part of it that I find very, very disturbing. I think if a lot of those people had help, then they wouldn’t be where they’re at.”
Debbie says she doesn’t fear the homeless despite the negative interactions she has had with them over the past few years. She knows the two worlds are destined to collide, but she does not let that awareness shape her routine; she comes and goes from her home comfortably at all hours of the day.
She says she’s even tried to stop using the word “homeless.” “I treat them like I would any other human being,” she explains. “It’s just the way I was raised. I was taught that there are people in situations they don’t want to be in through no fault of their own. It doesn’t cost anybody anything to be kind.”
She adds, “We’re either in love or we’re in fear. All our emotions are on the sliding scale of one or the other of those. So, when people are down on the homeless, that’s a fear response. We’ve made being homeless a nasty thing — we’ve criminalized it and we’ve decided they must have done something to ‘deserve’ it.”
Debbie says she wants greater understanding. She wishes that her homeless neighbors would be respectful of others’ property, and keep their camps clean. But she also wishes that more people were telling homeless people’s stories and letting housed people know how they can help people who have nowhere to go.
Debbie likens her community’s view of the homeless to garbage. “When I was in school, we were talking about sustainability and recycling and someone said, ‘You could just throw it away.’ But there is no ‘away.’ It’s the same thing with the homeless; you can’t just ship them to Mars and be rid of the problem.”