Friends and foes of homeless in Cherry Creek State Park at odds in park, social media

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Cherry Creek State Park. Park officials have received an increase of complaints of homeless living within the woods of the park. PHOTO BY PHILIP B. POSTON/Sentinel Colorado

AURORA | More homeless people are living in and near Cherry Creek State Park, drawing scrutiny and accusations that a local political party activist stole a homeless man’s tent and possessions before a recent snowstorm.

Plots in the massive state park, bounding south Aurora, are open to legal camping year round. But Jason Clay, spokesperson for Colorado Parks and Wildlife that oversees the park, said rangers have seen more illegal encampments in and around the park set up by apparently homeless people with nowhere else to go.

On a given day, there’s usually about three tents set up illegally in the state park, Clay said — more than in recent memory. Now, Cherry Creek park rangers are pondering daily how to interact constructively with homeless people and store possessions from apparently abandoned camps.

But residents near the vast state park, which includes the Cherry Creek reservoir, are also advocating for the removal of homeless camps. In a Facebook post last week, members of the Arapahoe Tea Party group argued they had an ethical obligation to remove drug addicts in particular, because these people cannot get themselves the help they need.

“Arresting the progression of the disease at this stage requires physical intervention,” wrote group member Patricia Athone, referencing drug addiction, in a since-deleted post. “And the only reasonable hope for that intervention occurring in time is a society that doesn’t permit people to live like animals.”

The argument drew a flurry of supporters — and critics who said the Tea Party activists were not only advocating for forced removal of homeless camps, but were actually doing so.

Denver resident Regan Benson told The Sentinel Anthone’s argument was clear as day.

“There is a group of people who have decided that they don’t like what they see,” she said. “And they went down there and started throwing everything in the trash.”

She said one man supported Anthone’s line of thinking and put it into action, walking into a homeless man’s camps and stealing key items — including a tent and blankets, she thinks — just before Tuesday’s blizzard.  

Sheilah Davis was also mobilized by the post. She said she’s interacted with one of the homeless men, who does not want to identify himself. Davis said she believes everything of his was stolen, but that he has a job and was able to replace it.

It’s unclear if the theft took place. Clay, the state park spokesperson, confirmed park rangers had interacted with a man last week who has been trying to clean some of the homeless camps in and around the park. But he said rangers have no evidence that he’s stolen any homeless person’s property and did not identify the man.

But Clay said the man would be charged with theft if he did take certain items under the guise of park cleanup.

Anthone did not respond to a request for comment. It’s unclear whether the local Tea Party affiliate aims to take the initiative and rid the state park — or area — of homeless people. The south metroplex park is bounded by tony homes, green lawns and scenic views. 

That’s the charge of Benson and Davis. This week, the two have spent nights in the cold, armed with blankets and even phone chargers as gifts for homeless people camped in the park.

Benson said she was horrified and angry when she saw Anthone’s original Facebook post. 

“They have made it very clear to let them know (the homeless) are not welcome in Arapahoe County,” she said. “This is some crazy, right-wing, authoritarian garbage. And it is very concerning.”

Homeless encampments are common throughout the Denver metroplex, including Aurora underpasses, near waterways and near service organizations.

But unlike city and county governments, Cherry Creek State Park doesn’t have a warming shelter or services for the homeless, Clay noted.  When interacting with homeless people, staff will hand out pamphlets for shelters nearby but ultimately move camps out of the park, where it is expensive to camp legally and limited to two weeks.

But the high cost — over $40 a night at the current winter campsites —  isn’t a problem for Benson, she said.

“The way these people are talking about the homeless, I’m halfway considering going out there and renting them a campsite to legally camp,” she said. “What is this? The war on the poor?”