Homeless camp vandalized by cops? Grand Junction activists say "yes"

Grand Junction isn't the likeliest spawning ground for progressive organizations.

But the Western Slope community is the place to find a growing number of activists like Jacob Richards, who acts on behalf of the homeless in the area, even if it means getting on the wrong side of the Grand Junction Police Department.

The latest development?

Three officers on administrative leave are under investigation for destroying property in a homeless camp -- and the GJPD has already purchased tents to replace the ones that were damaged.

Richards grew up in Aspen, but he's been a resident of Grand Junction or thereabouts for about a decade -- and since working as an employee of the community's main shelter during 2004-2005, he's advocated for the homeless community, as well as on behalf of other members of society who need a hand.

Among his tools are an underground newspaper, The Red Pill, and Housing First! No More Deaths!, an organization started last June. "A number of houseless friends and I were talking about all the people we've seen die on the streets of the city over the last couple of yeras," Richards says. "And we wanted to do something about it."

He acknowledges that hard numbers are hard to come by -- but by his count, "sixteen people died houseless in 2009, half of them literally on the streets of the city."

With that in mind, Richards and other members of HFNMD organized regular night patrols to locate people at risk, of which there are far too many. He says there are 170 shelter beds in the city but an estimated 2,000-plus people without homes -- among them, 500 students. "When the shelters are full, we take people to the emergency room if they're hypothermic, and if they're not but are still cold, we give them extra blankets, hand warmers."

While this past winter was harsh by Grand Junction standards, "only one person died," he says, "and that's a big improvement. We think that's because we've been raising awareness in the community and taking direct action to save lives."

The City of Grand Junction could be doing more to help, in Richards's view. "For a long time, Grand Junction has taken a hands-off approach to homelessness -- and the police are the tip of the sword when it comes to targeting homeless people. In the early 2000s, one of their techniques was to come into camps when people were going to soup" -- visiting soup kitchens -- "and they'd throw away all their property. People would have IDs there, pictures of their kids, and they'd throw everything away with no notice."

Since then, Richards acknowledges, the police have taken a different tack, posting warnings before coming in to clear out camps. Which makes the most recent incident an unfortunate exception.

"On Tuesday, May 4, I got a call from a person who was living in a well-established camp," he recalls. "The day before, she said, it seemed like police may have slashed all their tents. She said her daughter was trying to get back to the camp and she was cut off by a K9 unit. But a couple of witnesses placed officers in the area, and when people returned, they found bike tires slashed, tents slashed."

The next day, Richards and a photographer went to the camp to document the damage on yet another website, GJPDexposed.

In addition, Richards got in touch with Deputy Chief John Zen, with whom he has an open line of communications despite some awkward moments in the past; according to Richards, a couple of undercover cops tried to infiltrate Housing First! No More Deaths! during its early phase. He gave Zen a heads up about the vandalism, and later issued a formal complaint.

An investigation followed, and three officers were subsequently put on administrative leave -- something Richards sees as a positive sign. He was also encouraged by the decision of the department to provide eleven tents to those whose property was damaged -- although Richards's organization wound up delivering them. "I got a call Friday after work," he notes. "They said, 'Could you take them over? They might not appreciate having us bring them.'"

Reports suggest that a decision about potential discipline for the officers involved could come down by week's end, and Richards thinks accountability is key. "They need to know that they're not going to get off the hook by buying eleven tents from Walmart," he says.

In the meantime, Housing First! No More Deaths! is holding a barbecue and rally at 2 p.m. this afternoon about another subject -- the redesignation of a small park as a median in order to forbid panhandling there. Among the speakers will be Randall Amster, who teaches peace studies at Arizona's Prescott College. Click here for more information.

"We address more issues than just police stuff," Richards points out. "But we've been kind of forced into this reactionary role when bad things happen. We have to make the police realize how counterproductive it is for everybody."