Glenwood Springs City Council tackles homeless camp safety concerns
By the time a scheduled Thursday night Glenwood Springs City Council discussion around safety concerns involving the proliferation of homeless camps along the hillsides above town rolled around, most of the people who came to talk about the issue had left.
The meeting ran late, with the regular session beginning at 6 p.m. and lasting roughly five and a half hours, covering multiple fiery issues from the need for downtown public restrooms to design plans for a South Midland Avenue rebuild.
Then there was item 18 on the agenda. Glenwood Springs Chief of Police Terry Wilson took the podium and addressed the council regarding the homeless camp matter at around 10:45 p.m.
“We have talked with and helped organize trash removal processes from the sides of the hills, and I can tell you with absolute certainty, that has equated to us having as many or more camps now on the hillsides as we had five years ago,” said Wilson.
“A lot of the conversation about this began surrounding encampments up Boy Scout Trail, and that’s just one of the needles in the haystack,” he said.
According to Wilson, these encampments stretch from the Colorado River at Seventh Street all the way to the south edge of city limits across the entire lower flank of Lookout Mountain.
And that’s just the beginning.
Wilson pointed out that there is not a hillside in town that does not have this issue. In fact, every 12 hours the Glenwood Springs Police Department does a shift briefing and, as outlined by Wilson, almost always one or multiple incidents involve those that would fit in the local homeless demographic.
It’s quite literally a messy situation, Chief Wilson stressed.
“We deal with this populace all the time. Cleanup and dealing with it is difficult because the places are a toxic waste dump,” he said. “We’re talking hundreds upon hundreds of used needles from heroin and methamphetamine use. We’re talking human excrement.”
Because of the significant amounts of garbage building up in the gullies near the homeless and transient camps, fires and other health hazards become a grave worry, Wilson and several residents living in the east part of town have emphasized.
However, addressing these issues gets complicated as many of the camps reside outside of city limits, on private property, or on federal public land. Therefore, jurisdiction becomes a problem.
“You’re really dealing with what is less, I view, as a legal issue but more of a social issue,” said Glenwood Springs’ city attorney Karl Hanlon. “Constitutionally, there are a limited number of tools you have. Socially, I think there are a wide variety of things that you guys can investigate to do. That’s the reality of the situation.”
Wanting Chief Wilson’s thoughts on addressing the issue, Glenwood Springs Mayor Michael Gamba stated, “There’s been a lot of people who have suggested that some of the charitable organizations that provide services for these transient groups are part of the problem.”
The question being, when these groups supply food and sleeping bags, coupled with the easy access to retail marijuana downtown, do those factors enable the homeless and transient population in the area more so than if they did not exist?, the mayor inquired.
Citing places like Steamboat Springs, Chief Wilson pointed out that their lack of homeless and transient populations probably does coincide with how little services they offer but also because of their brutal winters.
Among the few residents who stuck it out to voice their complaints, one stated, “It’s not my fault that they choose to be homeless. It’s not my fault that they don’t want to deal with life.”
In the end, council decided on having another work session and or town hall meeting regarding the matter. Garfield County Commission Chairman John Martin, who was also on hand for the discussion, offered to have the county host the meeting.
The various land managers, police and fire officials and human service agencies that provide homeless services are to be invited to the community meeting, a time and date for which is to be determined.
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Glenwood Springs City Council member Shelley Kaup says she will seek reelection to another four-year term to one of council’s two at-large seats in the April 3 election.