EL PASO COUNTY, Colo. (KRDO) -- Several dozen residents of an illegal homeless camp are questioning the timing of the camp's shutdown by authorities just a week before Christmas.
And the campers aren't alone in their displeasure.
"I wanted to let everybody know there are people out here who are suffering just like everybody else is, and to force them to leave right before Christmas, it's just heartless," said Paul Fulkerson, a disabled Marine veteran who occasionally volunteers to bring food and warm clothing to the camp.
Fulkerson contacted KRDO NewsChannel 13 Monday after he learned of the camp's shutdown.
"There were families with children in there, too," he said.
The camp was located in a popular area for the homeless -- along Fountain Creek and the Midland Trail, between where 31st Street intersects with Cimarron Street and Colorado Avenue.
That area is the county's jurisdiction and has been known for years as "No Man's Land," a revolving door of homeless camps that have formed, been shut down, cleaned up and reformed.
A woman who asked to remain anonymous said she has lived in the camp for nine months, along with her husband and sister, and was present when the evictions began late last week.
"It was two sheriff's (deputies) and a bunch of cops, actually," the woman said. "I know they had come to check on somebody earlier that day. It was a health and welfare check. And then when the (deputy) came back later that day, he told everybody to get out of their tents now."
The woman believes that the first deputy at the scene became concerned after seeing an estimated 30 to 40 campers, and called for backup to order the campers to leave.
The Sheriff's Office and Colorado Springs police had no details to confirm the sequence of events, except for police saying an officer responded to a welfare request at the camp last Friday.
"But that's all we did," said Lt. Jim Sokolik.
The anonymous woman said she wonders why authorities closed the camp after walking through it every day for several months without incident.
"Why couldn't they have waited until after Christmas to kick us out? she said.
Fulkerson said complaints from the local business community may have been a factor in the evictions.
"I know that several of the business owners aren't happy with the homeless because of the trouble some of them cause," he said. "One (merchant) even got mad at me and threatened me because I've been helping the homeless. If I'd know things would get this ugly I probably wouldn't have said anything."
The camping area is just a few blocks away from Westside Cares, a social service agency that advocates for the homeless.
"It's a tough time for a lot of people," said Kristy Milligan, executive director. "There are many who are right on the edge of being homeless. High rents, jobs with low pay and the pandemic on top of it all."
There are concerns from some campers that authorities violated a recommendation by the Centers for Disease Control to avoid breaking up homeless camps. The CDC said that homeless communities help limit the spread of COVID-19 by spreading out their campsites.
However, Sokolik said the CDC makes an exception to that recommendation if a community has enough available shelter beds.
"That's certainly true from a legal standpoint," Milligan said. "Whether or not it is morally the right thing to do -- in these times during the coronavirus and the freezing cold -- is another question."
Many homeless people are reluctant to stay in shelters because of strict rules that can separate them from pets or partners, and because of the fear of contracting the coronavirus.
The two main shelters in Colorado Springs have had issues with COVID outbreaks, although Springs Rescue Mission spokesman Travis Williams said the outbreak at that facility was generally confined to staff.
"Homeless people do have options," Milligan said. "There are services available to them. But they have to seek them. Some of the homeless say that they don't want to go to a shelter because they like the freedom of not obeying rules. But what they really mean is that they have no idea how to navigate the process of getting those services. It is our job as service providers, and as the broader community, to let them know that their community does care about them. We want to see them do well, and that is only done through relationships."
But one relationship, that between the homeless and the local business community, is strained.
"We sympathize with them," a restaurant manager said. "We try to help them. We think the agencies are doing a good job of helping them. But we're tired of dealing with all of the problems surrounding homeless camps -- theft, vandalism, trash and aggressive panhandling. We've been coping with those for many years and we're not seeing any improvement."
On Friday night, as the temperature dropped into the teen, at least one camper remained in the area, huddling in a makeshift shelter.
The homeless camp evictions came as a new report found Colorado to have the nation's 10th-highest homeless population. The report was released by Porch.com., Inc., an online home improvement firm.
"I was surprised when I heard that," Milligan said. "But then, after I thought about it and remembered the high cost of living here and the pay that doesn't keep up, plus the pandemic, I can understand why we're ranked that high."
Fulkerson agreed as he sat in his wheelchair beside his dog.
"We need to do something different," he said.
To see the state-by-state homeless report, visit: https://porch.com/advice/states-with-largest-homeless-populations.