‘If we had a place to go, we’d be right there’: New urban camping ban kicks people out of pedestrian tunnel in Glenwood Springs

Ray K. Erku
Post Independent
Riley Phillips, who spent the winter sleeping in the pedestrian tunnel underneath Colorado Highway 82, gives a peace sign on Feb. 21, 2023.
Ray K. Erku/Post Independent

GLENWOOD SPRINGS — By the stroke of the all mighty pen, Ruben Sixkiller, Riley Phillips and their pitbull Knuckles can no longer call a long tunnel their home.

Some time around 1 a.m. on Feb. 19, these two homeless residents of Glenwood Springs awoke to the bright flashlights of police officers. Despite freezing temperatures, Sixkiller and Phillips were told they couldn’t stay where they were staying anymore, they said.

“It was below zero, man!” Sixkiller said last week.

About a handful of people experiencing homelessness have spent winter sheltering themselves from Colorado’s harsh elements inside the pedestrian tunnel underneath Colorado Highway 82, near the Sixth Street roundabout. That, or they try to see if there’s room available at the one homeless shelter in town, operated by Feed My Sheep. Typically, this means doing the overnight program on an air mattress in the basement of the Church of Christ in West Glenwood, which fits about 28-30 people. According to the rules, you can’t have drugs or alcohol on you, no violence is allowed and you can’t smoke outside between 10 p.m.-6 a.m.

When there’s no room or the shelter also refuses to take dogs, Sixkiller and Phillips sleep in sleeping bags underneath Highway 82. In addition to the confined space that helps block wind, they use heaters to ride out the night and charge whatever electronic devices they have using an electrical outlet beside the tunnel.

Riley Phillips packs his belongings on Feb. 21, 2023 after being told by police he can’t stay in a Glenwood Springs pedestrian tunnel anymore because the city passed a new prohibition on urban camping.
Ray K. Erku/Post Independent

But on Feb. 2, Glenwood Springs City Council amended its downtown camping prohibition zone to include the tunnel near the Sixth Street roundabout — the exact place where Sixkiller and Phillips wait out many frigid winter nights. Every council member — with the exception of Charlie Willman, who did not vote — voted in favor of the new restriction.

The city’s legal staff said that high volumes of traffic from Interstate 70, and bicyclists and other pedestrians having to use the road to circumvent people blocking the sidewalk have created unsafe conditions. The path itself goes right through the tunnel and eventually connects to Two Rivers Park.

City Council also pointed out, whether it’s the Salvation Army or Catholic Charities, there are already existing non-profit organizations that connect homeless people to shelter. 

“A lot of people here, this is a choice,” Council Member Tony Hershey said of the homeless in the tunnel. “It’s not just like finding some temporary shelter. This becomes a campsite, and it’s not safe, and it’s not safe for kids, and it’s not safe for women by themselves, and it’s not safe for me.

“Sometimes, I get scared through there.”

But not everyone agrees. Glenwood Springs resident Steven Smith showed empathy for the people in the tunnel during public comment.

“I’ve been through the tunnel plenty of times this winter where people are there. It first struck me as a little startling, but it also struck me as an excellent place to get some shelter,” he said. “The great majority of people there were deliberately making an effort to stay out of the thoroughfare to narrow their footprint.

“I guess I’m a little hesitant to throw out that shelter opportunity in weather like this completely.”

Walk through the park

Sixkiller and Phillips began staying near Two Rivers Park — occupied mostly by dog walkers, joggers and cyclists — after discovering that a makeshift camp they typically use was winterized and unlivable. The camp, they said, is on the outskirts of West Glenwood.

They weren’t always homeless, either. Sixkiller, 53, said he comes from Utah and worked a drill rig many years on the Piceance Basin. Things then grew tight, and he migrated to drill near Parachute. He also worked as a carpenter and currently survives on food stamps, panhandling and odd jobs, he said.

Ruben Sixkiller and his dog, Knuckles, in the pedestrian tunnel near the Sixth Street roundabout in Glenwood Springs on Feb. 21, 2023.
Ray K. Erku/Post Independent

Phillips, 65, said he worked at Walmart before he started suffering from sciatica nerve pain/issues and couldn’t work. The two lived in a local motel before they accumulated about $6,000 in unpaid rent before getting kicked out.

“I’ve never had a pain that won’t go away,” Phillips said.

As for the dog, Sixkiller said he inherited Knuckles as a stray. An old friend of his had the dog but had to move because he, too, got kicked out by the city.

“His owner was leaving, and he was a pup,” Sixkiller said. “It wasn’t my choice.”

This is not the first time people like him and Phillips were told to vacate the tunnel. They’ve received citations in the past, they said. But most times, officers tell them to leave — which they do, during the day — then they come right back without too much hassle.

“We just tell them our situation, and they realize that most of the time,” Phillips said of the police. “Most of the time we’ll pick up like this, and then we’ll just come right back. But this time, they’re telling us they’re going to take our stuff.

“What am I supposed to do without my sleeping bag?”

Decades of homelessness

Glenwood Springs Police Lt. Bill Kimminau has been with the department for the past 38 years. There were homeless then, and there are homeless now — but it’s 10 times worse now, he said on Monday.

Many times, they spread out in the surrounding hills and along the Colorado River in their non-condoned camp in West Glenwood. He said, however, they eventually catch up to them and chase them out of their campsite.

Ruben Sixkiller, his dog Knuckles and Riley Phillips stand near Grand Avenue in Glenwood Springs on Feb. 21, 2023.
Ray K. Erku/Post Independent

When it comes to bothering folks, the homeless are usually pretty tame. There have been occurrences of violence against other people, but they mostly fight amongst themselves, Kimminau said.

“A lot of them are drunk and have substance-abuse problems,” he said. “So they scare people, and we have a large bike theft problem with a lot of them.”

Kimminau said most people play by the rules after police tell them they have to move along. Sometimes they get written up a couple times per week because they don’t comply, and they come back, he said.

Speaking as to whether the new urban camping ban is going to help mitigate homelessness issues, he said, “Not really.” 

“I think if I had the answer to that, I’d win the Nobel Peace Prize,” he said, speaking on what would fully mitigate homelessness. “I mean, it’s one of those things. It’s a social issue, and we kind of get stuck in the middle trying to deal with it, and we only have so many things we can do.”

During February’s meeting with City Council, Glenwood Springs Police Chief Joseph Deras pointed out that the city continues to incur expenses with enforcing and cleaning up the tunnel. This includes mitigating biohazards, like human waste.

An electrical outlet people staying in a tunnel underneath Colorado Highway 82 use to charge their items.
Ray K. Erku/Post Independent

Meanwhile, if homeless people continue to receive citations in which they can’t pay, they eventually spend about three days in jail, where they get a bed and free meals.

“It’s kind of a revolving door,” Deras said. “We’re in a precarious situation where we try to offer them services, they choose not to take them and they’re in contempt, and they find themselves with a warrant, then they go into custody.”

That one time …

One day in February 2021, homeless man Sean D. Hurt began cursing loudly and causing a disturbance inside downtown Glenwood Springs business Chocolate Moose. 

After owner Evan Miller asked him to leave, Hurt responded by punching Miller in the face.

On Monday, Miller told the Post Independent that he hasn’t really noticed a big difference in the homelessness issues in Glenwood Springs since then.

Part of a crinkled United States flag sits in a shopping cart near Grand Avenue on Feb. 21, 2023. The cart belongs to someone who uses a nearby pedestrian tunnel as shelter at night.
Ray K. Erku/Post Independent

“I’ve gotten to a point where I know those guys by name there,” he said of the people in the tunnel. “It’s the same crowd as it has been for a while. That said, I haven’t seen any old faces disappear.”

But he said there’s not a ton of guys in the tunnel right now, and fortunately, they’re all non-violent people. He also said the new ordinance “makes sense” but it’s “not going to fix everything.

“The police know this, too,” he said. “The guys that are down there right now — at least in my experience — they’re pretty mellow guys.”

It’s almost spring

Sixkiller and Phillips were cleaning up their stuff in the tunnel during a balmy Feb. 21 morning. Shopping carts, sleeping bags and diesel heaters were scattered on the hard concrete.

As Sixkiller pet the head of his dog Knuckles, he spoke of how the shelter doesn’t have enough room all time, and that the city’s new ordinance is only making matters worse.

“If the shelter doesn’t have enough beds, ease up on the ordinance a little bit, give us a break,” he said. “Where else are we supposed to go? We’re residents here.”

It’s almost spring time, he mentioned. Once it gets warmer, he’ll likely migrate to the makeshift camp on the outskirts of town. He told the police this as he was getting kicked out of the tunnel for the umpteenth time. 

“’We only have one month left,’ I told them, and ‘We’ll be out of here,’” he said. “If we had a place to go, we’d be right there.”

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