Trash from homeless camps a problem
Numerous abandoned camps dot the slopes around Glenwood Springs, hallmarks of a wandering homeless population and an aggravation for neighbors both in town and on the hill.
“We moved here 25 years ago partially because of the adjacent trail,” recalled Kendall Spyker, who owns a home near Pioneer Cemetery. “This used to be a pristine place to hike. It’s not anymore.”
Over the years, Spyker has hauled out dozens of abandoned sites.
“One day 15 years ago at the onset of winter a couple just disappeared and left a thousand pounds of stuff up there,” he recalled. “That was sort of the start of it for me.”
“I don’t have anything against the lifestyle. For the most part, we try to leave people to their own ways,” he added. “It used to be a more surmountable problem.”
Rick Kelly is a relative newcomer to the neighborhood. He doesn’t regret his decision to move two years ago, but he does wish more people lived by the “leave it like you found it or better” ethic he grew up with.
“This year’s worst than the last, and I’m worried about next year being worse yet,” he said. “For every neighbor I talk to, it’s a concern. I think the community at large is concerned, too.”
That includes others living in the woods. Marvin Patrick came to Glenwood from Arizona a year ago and holds a steady job in town. On his way down from his own camp, he picks up plenty of other people’s trash.
“If you’re going to haul it up there, haul it out,” he said. “You’ve got these beautiful woods, and there’s no respect. It makes us all look bad.”
“Everybody has their own story,” he added. “You can’t judge the whole group by one person.”
No easy task
Public land is often a ways out of town and not well-marked. Lugging gear up the mountain or trash back down is a workout. Sometimes, on cool summer nights when the moon is full, it’s beautiful and peaceful. Other times, rain turns the hillside to mud, or you have to snowshoe out with a broken leg.
Still, Patrick and 30 or 40 other locals do their best to live by a set of rules laid out by local charity Feed My Sheep, including a moratorium on summer campfires and food stores that might attract wildlife. In exchange for ongoing assistance and winter shelter, they submit to occasional inspections to ensure their dwellings are safe and inconspicuous.
“We go up and make sure our local community members are taking care of the space,” said director Karen Peppers.
The organization also has organized cleanups and tried to educate newcomers, but it’s an uphill battle.
“There’s so many people we don’t even see,” she said. “Plenty of our guys aren’t afraid to speak up when they see something, but while some people listen, some could care less.”
It’s not just an aesthetic issue. Trash can be detrimental to wildlife, and it also can attract bears.
“We’ve had a lot of tents torn up,” Peppers said. “Thank God no one’s been hurt.”
Since it affects the people she works with the most, Peppers is more than a little frustrated when they get the blame.
“I’m tired of people pointing the finger at us,” she said.
Issue for law enforcement
Local law enforcement also is in the unenviable position of trying to educate the community about what is and isn’t a legal issue.
“It’s not against the law to be dirty or homeless,” observed Glenwood Springs police Lt. Bill Kimminau. “We’re kind of caught in the middle. Businesses don’t want them here, but they have a right to be here as long as they’re not causing problems.”
Illegal camping is certainly an issue, but enforcement is usually inspired by something else.
“If everyone kept things clean and we didn’t hear about them, we probably wouldn’t go out of our way to worry about it,” Kimminau said. “When I started 30 years ago, you didn’t see it hardly at all, but now it’s kind of the way of the world anywhere. I don’t think it’s worse here than anywhere else. Just being a small town, you see it more.”
According to Kimminau, general complaints about panhandling and loitering have decreased during bridge construction, but trash concerns remain fairly constant.
“I don’t know how many times we have cleanups back there,” he said. “We do a push, a year or so later it’s back again.”
Since most trashed and abandoned camps appear to be a function of temporary visitors, it’s a hard challenge to combat.
Anthony, a Feed My Sheep regular who declined to give his last name, has one suggestion.
“Just get a permit, and then there’s accountability,” he said.
Whether it came from a charity, law enforcement, or government land management, he envisions a system which would allow someone to register their dwelling. Then, if there’s a problem, there’s someone to answer for it and no one else has to take the blame.
Anthony sees public perception as a major challenge, right down to the word “homeless.”
“It automatically degrades us into a category that’s not up to par,” he said. “We’re part of the community. The people we have here are some of the most respectful I’ve had the pleasure of sharing my life with.”
That may be part of why Glenwood Springs has become, as he put it, “a hobo destination.”
The scenery doesn’t hurt, either.
“Glenwood is such an inviting place,” Spyker observed. “Who wouldn’t want to live here?”
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Jonathan Godes will serve another term as the mayor of Glenwood Springs.