Homeless in the Valley: Part I
Last updated 5/2/2022 at 10:51am | View PDF
Carol Harding-Kittridge lives on the south end of downtown Fountain and frequently sees homeless people camped along the creek from her house.
"It's probably 100 feet to my front door," she said.
Over the last two years, she has seen a gradual increase in the homeless population in this area – an observation echoed by many Fountain Valley residents.
"It is increasing; it's getting worse," said Connie Whisenhunt, owner of Connie's Cupboard thrift store just south of the Fountain Creek bridge at 594 S. Santa Fe Ave.
Connie's Cupboard uses most of its proceeds to help the homeless, carrying out its mission of "Hope for the Homeless" emblazoned prominently on the storefront sign. Whisenhunt and her team feed homeless people every day, usually lunches consisting of sandwiches, chips, cookies and bottled water. They also purchase extra supplies to distribute locally and in Colorado Springs.
"At the end of the day, I just want to be the hands and feet of Christ because it's the right thing to do," Whisenhunt said.
Over the last year, Fountain's Neighborhood Services Division has published numerous accounts of homeless camps that have been taken down after residents voiced concerns over physical safety, sanitary conditions and more. Locals took to social media to express frustration when their children were walking directly past camps behind Lowe's to get to and from school. One man spoke to the Fountain City Council in January, noting his wife was not comfortable walking their dog in Adams Open Space behind the library due to multiple homeless people camped out there – one of them allegedly "walking around with a cape screaming profanities in the middle of the woods."
In addition, the presence of panhandlers at local shopping centers and near large stores such as Safeway and Walmart has increased.
These trends have raised a lot of discussion among residents and area government officials.
"Without having official numbers, we know the homeless population has increased across the state, especially in the larger cities and around Grand Junction," Fountain Police Chief Chris Heberer said. "In Fountain we have also experienced an increase due to the of amount of calls the PD receives and just looking around town seeing more people that are homeless. The increase and our overall numbers are still very low, but we understand the community's interest and concern."
Although some residents of Security and Widefield have noted a greater presence of homeless, authorities say most are concentrated in Fountain, up and down Hwy. 85, or slightly to the north in the Stratmoor Hills area.
FPD officials attribute the increase to a few reasons. One, the legalization of marijuana has brought a tremendous amount of people to the state specifically for the purpose of using marijuana. Unfortunately, that increased the homeless population state wide.
"Second, sadly our region has a high number of former military folks that may have some form of mental health issues, which can lead to homelessness," Heberer said. "And with COVID, we know that the pandemic has also had an impact."
Last, Colorado Springs passed some specific city ordinances regarding homeless camping and a lot of the population moved in the county and south. There are other factors, but these are the highlights, Heberer said.
FPD notes that another fundamental issue is there are enough beds in Colorado Springs to support helping all people experiencing homeless. Springs Rescue Mission has over 400 beds, but in order to use the beds people must be "clean" – drug- alcohol-free and follow certain rules.
With these resources available, some people choose to remain homeless instead of getting treatment for substance abuse, getting clean and following the rules, FPD officers said.
Carol Harding-Kittridge has seen the trends go up and down over the years, as she's lived in proximity to the bridge for a long time.
"They've always been here, but it's usually just one here and there, just passing through town or whatever," she said. "In the last two years, it's been more and more."
She said she tries to help the homeless people she sees as much as possible, sometimes giving them work and feeding them, but she's also careful to give them their space to avoid conflicts. When she does talk to them, they give her various reasons for why they moved south to this area.
"The Springs is too overcrowded with homeless," she explained. "They're always either getting in trouble or their camps are taken down."
With God's Pantry moving from downtown Fountain to Widefield a few years ago, the resources here have become little to none. Connie's Cupboard does what it can with few resources to fill some of the gaps.
"It's a sad situation," Harding said. "Some of them choose it, some of them don't."
She's concerned about the safety of her own property. She's had a battery stolen out of a car, and one man used her address to register at a hospital – which resulted in her receiving the medical bills.
Potential dangers from campfires and litter – especially drug related – is what concerns her the most.
"The needles and syringes are just horrendous," she said.
But she's also worried about the safety and well-being of these individuals, especially during the bitter cold many experienced this winter.
"I just wish there were more places for them to get food and shelter down here," Harding said. "We have so many empty buildings, I just wish somebody would open something. A lot of them can't get up to the shelters in town."
Whisenhunt said she consistently feeds about four people a day, sometimes as many as seven. Often she sees people making their way to Pueblo or New Mexico, and Connie's Cupboard is a convenient and friendly stop for them to get some food, rest their feet, and get cleaned up a little. They can't stay the night, but at times they get comfortable enough to take a nap.
Although a few seem to have psychological issues, the majority who pass through Connie's doors simply are "in a pickle," she said. Many have found themselves not having an ID, not having money to replace an ID, and therefore not able to obtain work. Whisenhunt personally has taken some to the DMV to get a driver's license or ID.
"It's not due to a lack of wanting to do better," she insisted. "There's abandonment issues, there's trauma, there's a couple Vietnam vets."
Sometimes, cars break down and they have no money to fix them. These and other factors create a "vicious circle" with lots of holes that can be difficult to re-connect when even a few dollars is preventing a fix – a situation that most people don't think could ever happen to them.
"I always tell people, if you don't have a savings account and a good job, everyone is two weeks away from being homeless," Whisenhunt said.
She claims a number of people living in the downtown Fountain area under bridges or in open spaces are locals who have lost their jobs. The longer they stay out there without clean clothes, a shower and a good night's sleep, the more difficult it becomes to get back on track.
"When you don't feel good and you haven't slept, it messes with your mind," she explained.
From the FPD perspective, the homeless population in Fountain is overall fairly low in part because there are no dedicated services within the city.
"Most of the people that are seen on the streets of Fountain, we have found actually have a place to live and or stay and bounce between that place and being homeless," Heberer said. "Historically, we know most of our homeless population by name and most do not have a criminal record or pose a threat to our citizens. We will address the issues from our citizens as they come up. Homelessness is a complicated issue in our society, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution."
Editor's note: This is the first part in a series on homelessness in the Fountain Valley region. Future articles will address topics such as suggestions for helping the homeless and whether additional facilities are needed locally; how law enforcement deals with homeless camps and panhandlers; specific ways people can help the homeless; and much more.
FPD Chief Chris Heberer announced that a joint task force between FPD and Code Enforcement would begin conducting monthly sweeps of homeless "hot spots" beginning in May and through the summer to address specific areas of concern. Future articles will provide a closer look at how authorities deal with these situations in Fountain and around El Paso County.