'Terrible trend'

As drug use among homeless people appears to increase, deaths rise and police make more arrests
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Photo by Bryan Oller

Police Sgt. Olav Chaney sees a lot of drug paraphernalia when he cleans up homeless camps.

A member of the Colorado Springs Police Department’s Homeless Outreach Team, Chaney also says that most homeless people his team comes into contact with have drug addiction issues.

“In a nutshell, I can say drugs is a big issue,” he says. “The majority of the people we deal with, nine times out of 10 they’ll be straight forward with you [about their drug use]. I would say there are needles in every camp we come across. It’s visible. You can see the caps of the needles or the needles themselves. That is a big issue.”

Community Health Partnership is to conduct the “Point in Time” survey of the homeless Jan. 23 to 28, though results won’t be know for weeks, to determine if the region is seeing a rise in  people experiencing homelessness.

Numbers won’t be available for while, but Chaney says, “We have seen a lot of new people coming into town, from Denver and other states. It seems like every day we see someone new.”

Chaney says he and his five officers have focused more on arrests in the last year, which often results in the homeless going to jail, at least for a few days.

“In many cases we probably saved a life or two, got them out of the cold weather, and it was good we were able to get them into the jail,” he says.

Despite that, El Paso County saw a dramatic spike in deaths of homeless people last year, and an even greater increase in those who died from fentanyl.

County Coroner Dr. Leon Kelly describes that rise in two words: “Terrible trend.”

“If they’re not a danger to themselves or others, there’s not a lot we can do." —Sgt. Olav Chaney

Chaney and five other officers — his team is short one officer at the moment — work to dismantle illegal homeless camping areas and steer people toward help agencies.

While they work with subject matter experts in learning how to recognize mental illness and channel those folks toward support agencies, “If they’re not a danger to themselves or others, there’s not a lot we can do,” he says. “It’s tough. It really is.”

If someone is deemed a danger to themselves or others, they can be placed in residential psychiatric care under an emergency commitment procedure, but that’s not something that happens every day, he says.

“Someone in this wonderful country needs to come up with a game plan for that,” he says.

But Chaney is thankful his team does have a few tools to deal with homeless people that some communities haven’t authorized.

For example, his team issued 315 tickets in 2021 for trespassing but stepped up the pace last year, issuing 375 tickets.

Other citations, though, took a dip: from 561 citations in 2021 for camping on public property, in riparian zones and parks, to 393 citations last year.

But the HOT team has become more aggressive in arresting homeless people, using the strategy of checking homeless people they find in illegal camps for outstanding warrants.

In 2021, the HOT team arrested 239 homeless people on felonies, including sexual assault, robbery and even homicide.

In 2022, that number was 304, a 27 percent increase.

In addition, the team made 2,259 arrests on misdemeanor crimes last year, a 10.5 percent increase from the 2,044 misdemeanor arrests in 2021.

While not all those arrests on misdemeanors go to jail, a good number do, because, as Chaney says, “Judges [who make that decision] got fed up because some are not showing up for court.”

While the persistence of homeless people appearing on the city’s streets, near riparian areas and in city parks has been termed a negative for the community, being homeless can be life-threatening for those who find themselves without shelter.

Kelly, the coroner, says that in 2021, 78 homeless people died, and seven of those were from fentanyl, a deadly opioid that’s 50 times stronger than heroin that’s been flooding the nation.

Last year, homeless deaths rose to 115, a 47 percent increase. Of those, 27, or nearly a quarter of them, died from fentanyl overdoses.

“So you can see where the biggest jump is coming from,” Kelly says via email.

And those 27 deaths from fentanyl could rise as toxicology testing on some individuals from late last year is completed, he says.

“I could kind of feel it coming over the year but didn’t think it was that much higher until we counted them up,” Kelly says. “Those year over year comparisons are real too, because we haven’t changed anything about how we define or determine homelessness. Terrible trend.”

“The economy, housing prices, rising rents, unemployment, the opioid epidemic and mental illness are all weighing on how individuals and families navigate their day-to-day lives.” —Springs Rescue Mission 2022 annual report.

While the Point in Time survey numbers for this year are pending, last year’s survey showed that the homeless population had grown — from 1,339 in 2020 to 1,443 in 2022.

However, the number of unsheltered homeless people, those living on the streets, declined last year to 267 from 358 in 2020.

Over a longer span, the number of unsheltered declined by 48 percent since 2018, which saw a high of 513.

However, the Springs Rescue Mission, the area’s chief agency who supports the homeless, saw a 17 percent increase in the number of people they served in 2022 compared to the prior year, according to its annual report. That equates to serving 2,974 individuals in 2022 versus 2,596 individuals in 2021.

Most of that increase were women.

Homeless people are often wrongly, in the view of some help agencies, characterized as men who commit crimes, do drugs and refuse to work. Rather, many people find themselves without a roof over their head due to unexpected circumstances.

Take Fran, a Rescue Mission guest featured in its annual report, who became homeless after moving into a rental house that she and her family were unaware was in the process of foreclosure. When the foreclosure was finalized, the family was given only a few days to move. Without the  means to move most of their belongings, they lost most of what they had. She spent two years at the mission engaging in various programming, including work opportunities and Bible studies, and in February 2022 she and her family moved into an apartment.

But even as the homeless population rose, donations dropped from 2021 to 2022, SRM reports, from $16.7 million to $16.2 million, and expenses rose to $14.3 million in 2022 compared to $12.2 million in 2021.

“The economy, housing prices, rising rents, unemployment, the opioid epidemic and mental illness are all weighing on how individuals and families navigate their day-to-day lives,” SRM says in its annual report. “In a growing number of situations, these pressures are leading to housing insecurity and homelessness.”

A homeless person and his dog. (Courtesy Springs Rescue Mission)

All that isn’t lost on the city, which pumps significant dollars into helping the homeless or preventing homelessness.

The city has allocated $500,000 from the general fund for homeless assistance and shelter beds and another $262,000 from the federal Emergency Solutions Grant this year, similar to spending last year.

But that’s not all. Last year, the city spent money on personnel dedicated to the homeless situation in various departments, including the police HOT team; the Fire Department’s Homeless Outreach Program in which homeless people are identified for certain help by other agencies, including behaviorial health assessments, and Public Works, which budgeted $480,000 for its WorkCOS program that helps SRM address unemployment among the homeless.

In addition, the Neighborhood Services Division also tackles cleaning up homeless camps.

Last year, the Parks Department earmarked $124,934 to mitigate the homeless’s impact on parks, and the city launched the Homeless Outreach Court Program to connect defendants with service agencies as an alternative to fines, jail time and community service.

Crystal Karr, the city’s homeless prevention and response coordinator, says via email that the city doesn’t provide housing or direct services. Rather, it focusees on supporting local agencies who work to assist the homeless.

“We work to coordinate community efforts and resources for our community’s most vulnerable and create initiatives to reduce the number of individuals and families experiencing homelessness and that when it occurs [it] is a short duration,” she says.

Besides aid to the homeless through those agencies and through spending as previously described by city departments, the city also looks for long-term solutions through increasing the number of affordable housing units.

“This year our grant funds, incentives, and private activity bonds will go toward assisting with the construction and preservation of 1,236 affordable rental units,” she says. “Another 467 units will be breaking ground within the next twelve months.”

This year, the city plans to spend $3.7 million to increase the supply and preserve existing affordable housing, $517,000 to provide direct support for housing searches,  case management and job training to low-income residents, and $262,000 for shelters and services to assist people experiencing homelessness, she says.

As for drug use by homeless persons, Karr calls the emergence of fentanyl “a surging problem” that the city is “acutely aware” of.

“We are researching to get a full understanding of the fentanyl issue and understanding its impacts on our unhoused neighbors,” she says.

If there’s an upside to the local situation, it’s that the presence of homeless people in the Downtown core area seems to have stabilized.

Susan Edmondson, president and CEO of the Downtown Partnership, notes her agency doesn’t tally numbers but that there’s a sense the issue hasn’t gotten worse.

“We’re not noticing anything significantly different,” Edmondson says in an email. Though the numbers seem to rise and fall at various times, she adds, “To my observation and what our team is seeing – nothing majorly different.”

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