No-camping ordinance passes
City Council supports police plan; implementation anticipated by March
City Council approved a public camping ban on first reading Feb. 9.
Once the law takes effect - approval of two readings with unchanged wording is required for that - the “tent cities” now lining the public parts of Fountain and Monument creeks will become illegal.
City police have already worked out a procedure which they say would exercise compassion by not moving tent campers until they can guarantee them shelter. A 48- hour warning period (at the minimum) would precede such actions. Those who refuse to cooperate would receive tickets and also have their tents and sleeping bags removed and placed in evidence; at the same time, the ticketed individuals would be taken to available shelter space, police have explained.
The proposed law actually consists of two ordinances - one defining public camping and making it “illegal to camp on any public property, except as may be specifically authorized by the appropriate governmental authority,” and the other referring to the definition in specifying that camping is disallowed in city parks.
City expectations are that the law will take effect sometime in March.
Council's 8-1 vote followed about four hours of public comments. Out of 37 speakers, 29 spoke in opposition, with 8 in favor. But in making his motion, City Councilmember Scott Hente said the meeting “consensus” did not match what he's heard from the public at large. Noting that often on controversial issues, he gets equal amounts of comments beforehand from both sides, he said, “I can think of no item where my constituents have spoken so singly, saying 'Please pass this ordinance.'”
Hente revealed that he is aware of two instances recently “where companies decided not to locate here” because of the numerous tent sites, which are highly visible from I-25 and Highway 24. He added the personal opinion that catering to the relatively few campers (estimates are 300 to 500 people) is occurring at the expense of economic development that helps all city residents and, with worsening issues of sanitation and creek pollution, passing the ban is necessary to be “responsible stewards of public land.”
One citizen who supported the ordinance at the meeting was Robert Maez, a Westside businessman and leader of the Avenue Merchants Association (chiefly west of 31st Street). He stressed that he understands that the homeless are individuals with individual problems.” However, he pointed out that in the Red Rock shopping center (which backs onto Fountain Creek) “we're seeing the worst of the homeless problems,” including burglaries and fires and even human feces on the sidewalk in front of his store twice in the past week.
Joining the majority on the vote were two council members - Larry Small and Jan Martin - who had criticized the same ordinance(s) in December for being too callous. Martin said that after consideration she's decided that “doing nothing is not an option. I believe it's inaction that made this balloon on us.” But empowering police to ticket and relocate campers will not fix homelessness, she cautioned; “It's up to us as a community to continue to work to find a bigger solution.”
Based on Police Chief Richard Myers' description of the police procedure, Small said he now believes that the ordinance can be effective by giving the homeless a “path out” of their plight. (Despite its tight budget this year, the city has three police officers assigned full-time to helping creekside campers find jobs or shelter alternatives.) In January, with reports of trash accumulations, Small had appealed to the campers to do a better job of cleaning up their sites. Before his “yes” vote Feb. 9, he said he had not seen any improvement. “The more we delay, the worse it gets,” he said.
The sole “no” vote came from City Councilmember Tom Gallagher, who reiterated previous criticisms, charging that the ordinance “is making the indigent into criminals.” He also spoke of a “code of the homeless,” in which he said campers presumably keep order among themselves; however, the Westside Pioneer has talked to police officers who have spoken of instances of thefts and assaults in the camps.
In his comments, Mayor Lionel Rivera advocated housing alternatives, particularly the C-C Boarding Home operation in the Express Inn at Eighth Street and Highway 24/Cimarron Street, which provides room, board, clothing and transitional assistance to homeless individuals for a cost equivalent to the pay for working a minimum- wage job one day a week. “The city should look at making some resources available to people making the transition,” he said.
Common themes among the ordinance opponents were that the proposal was heartless, un-Christian, anti-freedom and/or unconstitutional. Loring Wirbel of the local American Civil Liberties Union and Pikes Peak Justice & Peace Commission alleged that “cowboy officers” in the CSPD might use the new ordinance to run roughshod over the homeless.
(This statement, and others in a similar vein, were later rebuked by several council members, including Randy Purvis, who, in defending the city's police force, added the comment, “It is wrong to fan the flames of cynicism in this community.”)
One woman who opposed the ordinance referred to pictures the police had shown of trash heaps in homeless areas, saying she didn't know where they got those pictures because her son was in a camp and it always looks clean.
Another lady said the nearby Springs Utilities power plant is at least as ugly as the camps; she also said she is willing to go down to the camps and teach the homeless how to be “better stewards” of the land.
Speaking in favor, Westside business owner Ed Prenzlow said that to be a good citizen, “you can't take everything and give nothing.”
Eric Verlo, former owner of the Westside's Bookman bookstore, charged that the city had no right to prohibit shelter - “a basic right” - on public land. “This is an obvious property rights issue,” he said.
The speakers in opposition to the ordinance included a few students from Colorado College. Others called for establishing a “tent city” for the homeless away from the creek as an alternative to the proposed law. Later, Councilmember Bernie Herpin referred to the tent city idea and said “I would like to ask the Colorado College students who spoke to us today if they have approached the college administration to ask if they would allow camping on the Colorado College campus, which has large, open areas away from the creeks and close to services, and if you haven't, will you?”
An answer came back from the audience: “We will ask.”
At that, Rivera commented, “I thought this would be rhetorical. I'm glad we had this conversation.”
Appeals on behalf of the ordinance included concerns about homeless people's use of public places as hang-outs, such as Penrose Library, which one lady said “is getting to be a scary place.”
Police Chief Richard Myers responded to some of the anti-ordinance comments, emphasizing that enforcement would be used with discretion.” It's “the basis of our criminal justice system,” he said.
Without the new ordinance, he pointed out, the city lacks the legal power to stop people from camping on any public land, such as the median on Cascade Avenue. In nearby Cheyenne Mountain State Park, he observed, people are only allowed to camp in designated areas. “You can't just camp wherever you like.”
As for one speaker's comment that the ordinance means the city is “trying to kick them out,” Myers retorted, “but they're already kicked out - that's the point. They're living outside. This is about getting them to shelter, getting people to housing.”
Douglas Bruce, author of the recently passed Issue 300 that wiped out city enterprise contributions to the general fund, offered detailed criticism of the ordinances, saying he supported the concept but found the wording “amateurish and inept.”
City Attorney Patricia Kelly defended her product, saying it was modeled from an ordinance in Orlando, Fla., which has “withstood legal challenges.” Nev-ertheless, Hente asked the attorney to review Bruce's comments just in case and change the ordinance wording if they saw a need.
If there are any wording changes between first and second reading, a third reading would be required, Rivera said.
To define camping, the main ordinance lists the following: “Sleeping or making preparations to sleep, including the lying down of bedding for the purpose of sleeping… Occupying a shelter out-of-doors. 'Shel-ter' shall mean any cover or protection from the elements other than clothing, such as a tent, shack, sleeping bag, or other structure or material… The presence or use of a camp fire, camp stove or other heating source or cooking device…. Keeping or storing personal property.”
Westside Pioneer article