Begging to differ
Westside left out of draft no-panhandling law; Meeting Sept. 5 with city attorney, citizens
In response to a draft no-panhandling ordinance that leaves out the Westside, a community meeting is scheduled Wednesday, Sept. 5 from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Shrine Club, 6 S. 33rd St.
City Council heard a presentation about a proposed downtown-only law at its Aug. 27 informal meeting. City Attorney Chris Melcher told the elected body that such a “narrowly drawn” zone ought to survive constitutional freedom of speech scrutiny, but if other zones - such as on the Westside - are added to the ordinance, “it is almost certain to be struck down.”
Advocating for the West-side is the Avenue Task Force, a group of residents and business owners mainly located in the transient-beleaguered segment of Colorado Avenue west of 31st Street. The group began convening regularly with Colorado Springs, El Paso County and Manitou government/law enforcement officials several months ago.
“You need to be there to show your support,” states a task force flyer for the Sept. 5 meeting. “All businesses and residents invited.”
Organization of Westside Neighbors (OWN) President Welling Clark, acting as task force spokesperson, said Melcher has agreed to attend the meeting. Melcher also told council he planned to meet with the task force “next week” (although not stating a date).
As proposed, the law would not prohibit panhandling as such, but would make it illegal for any solicitation (including holding a sign) on public property unless the person has a permit. The draft ordinance states that the intent is “to preserve and protect the beauty and economic viability of the downtown zone. All solicitation in the Downtown No Solicitation Zone is disturbing and disruptive to residents and businesses and impacts the social harmony and economic viability of the City as a whole.”
Downtown business groups started calling for such a law earlier this year. Hearing about the idea, the Avenue Task Force asked to be included, focusing initially on the avenue segment west of 31st Street to Manitou. When Old Colorado City representatives identified similar problems, the task force broadened its proposal to start at about 24th Street.
Originally, City Council was to review a draft ordinance in June, but first the fire intervened and more recently the City Attorney's Office asked for more time.
Elected officials and public safety officials have been invited to the Sept. 5 meeting as well. “What we [task force members] hope to achieve,” Clark said, “is providing information to people so they can make informed decisions and understand all the aspects of this issue.”
Clark said he appreciated Melcher's willingness to attend, but added that he is “disappointed” at what he deemed “incomplete research” by the city's legal staff - particularly into how other communities are dealing with street beggars. For example, one city that the task force has learned about approaches the problem from a traffic standpoint, making panhandling illegal at street corners and curb cuts.
Clark also disputed the attorney's position that a Westside no-panhandling zone would fail to control certain criminal activities now occurring west of 31st, including assaults, prostitution and drug dealing. Clark said the task force believes that denying panhandlers would diminish those other crimes. “It's the best way to be proactive,” he said.
In his comments to council, Melcher suggested that the ordinance in the downtown be approved and then monitored for a year, to see if it's working well and surviving any legal tests. Then he suggested that the city look again at the Westside (which he alternately called the “West End” or “West Avenue”) to see “if we can develop “factual support for the West End to create a no-solicitation zone for that area.”
Councilmembers themselves did not express 100 percent enthusiasm for the draft ordinance, mainly because it exempts public places where families like to go - but transients do too - including Penrose Library and Acacia Park. Melcher said he omitted those because, based on case law, they are perceived as places used for “public forums,” which under free speech could include panhandling. But he pledged to review the subject further.
At-large City Council-member Brandy Williams questioned whether stronger enforcement of the city's existing “aggressive panhandling” ordinance might not be just as useful, to which Police Chief Pete Carey replied that the problem is chiefly the numbers of panhandlers, to the point where “people don't want to go downtown.” Melcher added, “Every corner is staked out. They're not aggressive, but that behavior is stifling business activity.”
The biggest champion for the Westside was Merv Bennett, an at-large councilmember, who said he sees a “serious, serious safety issue” both there and the downtown. “I have personally observed that people can't even use bus shelters because people are sleeping in them or there are people who are threatening them,” he said.
Melcher responded that “the courts haven't supported no-solicitation zones on the basis of safety [because other laws can apply], but more on business vitality and tourism.”
Melcher offered a second type of no-panhandling ordinance, which would make it illegal for anyone citywide to solicit from vehicles on a street or highway. He said he thought this law might help the Westside, because the avenue becomes US 24-Business west of 31st.
Bennett probed Melcher for details on that plan too. But when he asked for the definition of “highway” in the proposed law, if it means more than just “curb to curb,” the city attorney said he did not know and would have to check.
Councilmember Lisa Czelatdko, whose District 3 includes the Old Colorado City area west to 31st Street, said she is concerned that some of the panhandling is “organized. I understand some of them are bused in. It's also affecting the Westside.”
She additionally noted the jurisdictional issue, in that the west-of-31st area is mostly county on the south side of the street west to Manitou city limits, meaning that panhandlers could move from the city to the county area to avoid city prosecution. Melcher said he hopes to work with the county to collaborate on those issues.
Councilmember Scott Hente, whose District 1 includes the area west of 31st, admitted he was being naïve, but observed that “we could end panhandling today if we all stopped giving them money,” donating instead to groups that are set up to aid people in trouble.
In that regard, the Avenue Task Force has created a poster, copies of which are being passed around the community. Referring to the liquor/drug habits of many transients and how they often get drunk from money they're given (leading them to pass out in public and be picked up and taken to hospital emergency rooms), the poster states, “Don't Give Money to Panhandlers… Your $5 handout just cost us $2,970 in emergency services…. Instead Donate to Charities that can truly help give a hand up, not a handout!”
Because Aug. 27 was an informal meeting, City Council could take no action on either of the no-solicitation ordinances. But both are tentatively on the agenda of council's Sept. 11 formal meeting, when they could be voted on.
Westside Pioneer article