COLORADO SPRINGS — Plagued by repeated episodes of violence and vandalism, drug use, alcohol use and overall misuse, Dorchester Park may be headed for change.
The park, one of Colorado Springs’ oldest, has been a problem for city leaders for years.
With an east entrance off one of the more rundown blocks of South Nevada Avenue, Dorchester Park is edged to the south by Fountain Creek and I25, with access to a portion of the Greenway Trail. The Springs Rescue Mission’s (SRM) campus is just a short walk north.
Visitors have to cross either South Nevada or South Tejon to enter the park and, once inside, may not find it overly welcoming.
In August, the Parks Department and Colorado Springs Police installed fencing to block off the two picnic pavillions, a move some local organizations have protested.
A message sent to FOX21 Digital NOW from the Pikes Peak Womxn for Liberation Facebook page, read in part:
Criminalizing our neighbors that are experiencing homelessness and denying folks a place to rest and seek shelter during the day when shelters kick them out is inhumane and must stop.Pikes Peak Womxn for Liberation
But after years of regular incidents of “illegal behavior” in the pavillions, the city says the barricades were erected to help police “get a handle” on the situation. There are no plans right now to take them down.
Meanwhile, a strategy for the park itself may be evolving.
“The parks, recreation, and cultural services department is evaluating new plans for park uses; however, we are in the very beginning stages, and no decisions have been made,” said Kurt Schroeder, Park Operations and Development Manager.
Dorchester Park is only one of 138 neighborhood parks across the city, but it requires a vast amount of resources in maintenance efforts alone.
“Hundreds of man-hours have gone into cleaning up the park this year – more than any other park in the city,” said Schroeder.
His crews, already small in number, are only able to spend about four hours per week per park – it’s not enough time, he says, to keep up with the mess. At Dorchester, they’re tasked with removing large amounts of trash and debris, plus the tedius work of vandalism restoration – all to keep the area safe for park users.
And the people who frequent this particular park aren’t often – if ever -children racing for the swings, people putting together pick-up soccer games, or families unpacking picnic lunches.
Instead, the area is routinely used as living and gathering space for people experiencing homelessness. People, the Springs Rescue Mission says, who are welcome within its doors: 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
“Parks are for the entire community and need to be healthy, vibrant, and welcoming places,” said Travis Williams with SRM. “With the comprehensive resources offered at SRM to improve people’s lives, help is available only a few thousand feet away.”
Their services include a day-time resource center, a park-style courtyard, showers, storage, hot meals, and access to more than 20 programs that provide housing, health, and employment services.
And the Colorado Springs Police Department’s Homeless Outreach Team (HOT) is trying to help make the connection between those services and people in need at the park.
The small group of dedicated officers visits Dorchester at least three times a week, according to a CSPD spokesman. Their goal is to make contact with people experiencing homelessness in order to check on their welfare and link them up with helpful resources.
Of course, officers visit the park more often when calls for service are made. And, based on police records obtained by FOX21 Digital NOW, those calls are made quite often. So far in 2019, CSPD has responded to 364 incidents in the park.
And, although not all inclusive, this chart may provide some insight on what police are dealing with at Dorchester:
Still, local groups insist the park is important, and the people who use it, worth protecting.
One group, “Spreading Smiles and Sandwiches”, coordinates meet-ups on Facebook. Their volunteers hand out food and other supplies at the park one Sunday every month.
At their October event, co founder Drew Hausfeld, who’d just learned about potential changes at the park, created a video to voice his dismay. “It’s places like this,” he says in the video, gesturing to the park and the closed off pavillion, “that allow us to feed [people] and meet them where they are.” He urges anyone who agrees to contact City Council in support of his movement.
The city insists the park isn’t closing and, even if it looks different in the future, it will still operate as a public park – in fact, it must.
Records show the land was purchased by three families and deeded back to the city in 1892, with the intent it would be used for a free public park. The city says it intends to keep it that way.
But it’s clear something needs to change.
Last summer, one person was killed and another was injured in separate stabbings near Dorchester Park.
And back in the winter of 2017, Anthony LaScala Jr. says he was brutally attacked when he rode his bike to the park to meet friends. He said someone popped out from behind a tree and pushed him over. Two more people came out with baseball bats.
“It was so dark that I couldn’t see who they were. It happened almost immediately. They hit me in my chest, they hit me in my back, they hit me in my kidneys, they hit me in my legs, they hit me on the back of my neck,” said LaScala.
They beat him until he was unconscious and left him lying on the trail.
A month after that, a man was arrested and charged with arson after setting a tent at a homeless camp on fire multiple times. A homeless woman was inside the tent at the time. Police say Wayne Malone threw burning debris at her shelter, and the two got into a physical fight.
Schroeder told FOX21 Digital NOW the goal is to change Dorchester into a positive, functioning place for the community. “It’s functioning right now,” he said. “But it isn’t positive.”
When asked about the perception the city may be targetting the homeless population, Schroeder interjected immediately.
“My staff absolutely has empathy for folks in these situations,” he said. “But when there’s misuse, what can you do?”