Downtown solicitation banned; Westsiders await ‘change’ crowd

       The downtown will get the beggar ban its merchants have been pleading for.
       The question now is whether - or to what extent - any denied downtown panhandlers will “spare-change” their way to the Westside.
       In two votes Nov. 13, City Council passed ordinances defining a downtown zone where any solicitation is disallowed (except uses with city permits); outlawing citywide soliciting on interstates and “national highway routes”; and extending from 6 to 20 feet the distance from a doorway that handouts can be sought under the existing, citywide aggressive-panhandling law.
       Assuming passage on second reading Nov. 27, these actions could take effect as early as Dec. 2.
       Council also asked City Attorney Chris Melcher to look into a possible public drunkeness law. He said he could have something by January. Additionally, council plans to come back in five months to review how the new ordinances are doing.
       The 20-foot change was requested by City Councilmember Lisa Czelatdko, whose District 3 includes the downtown as well as the Westside.
       She also asked about - but did not push for - a suggestion by Organization of Westside Neighbors (OWN) President Welling Clark for solicitation offsets of up to 20 feet from curb cuts to stop beggars from hitting up motorists as they drive in or out of shopping centers. City Attorney Chris Melcher squelched that idea by saying he'd never heard of it “anywhere in the country” and so, with “no legal review” one way or the other, he couldn't support it.
       In his comments, Clark predicted that if council implemented both the 20-foot doorway rule and the curb-cut restraint “we could solve 95 to 98 percent of the problem.”
       He also noted that he had met with city legal staff that morning “for the first time,” and suggested that if they had met sooner, “we could have solved this in 30 days.”
       The “first-time” statement contrasted with a Melcher PowerPoint graphic saying he had met with OWN in September (which may have been a reference to a Sept. 5 neighborhood meeting, co-planned by OWN, where he answered questions from a crowd of about 75 people for about an hour at the Westside's Shrine Club and then left).
       Council President Scott Hente admitted having some advance uncertainty about the downtown law. On the one hand, he believes the Springs is “a compassionate community - we saw that last summer” (referring to post-Waldo Canyon Fire donations). He also understands that many people are swayed to give money to panhandlers because “they see people they think are in need.” But the reality is that, based on statistics nationwide, “90 percent of the money given to panhandlers goes to drugs and alcohol,” Hente said. “How are we helping them when we're feeding their habit?”
       More emphatic comments in favor were provided by City Councilmember Tim Leigh. “I support this without reservation,” he said, adding that his wife “won't go downtown” because of the panhandlers there.
       Melcher wrote the downtown ordinance. Worried about court free-speech challenges, he rejected previous council/citizen re-quests for multiple zones and for language that specifically frowns on begging. He told council he believes the city is prudent in starting with one zone, with anti-solicitation language taken from a law that has withstood a legal challenge in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The wording is intended to be non-specific, including the language that “all solicitation in the Downtown No Solicitation Zone is disturbing and disruptive to residents and businesses.”
       With the law, no one in public places downtown will be able to sell anything, ask for anything or even hold up a sign for such purposes (except in certain cases, such as a sandwich board on the sidewalk, for which the city can issue a revocable permit).
       The concern for the Westside is that the downtown panhandlers will migrate to commercial areas such as Old Colorado City, where they can still legally ask for money and hold up signs on public sidewalks (as long as, under the other new law, they're 20 feet from doorways).
       About 20 citizens spoke on the matter during a two-hour-plus public hearing. Based on the comments, the number of beggars in recent years has grown from just a few to dozens and, although they tend to be non-aggressive, their unkempt appearance, relentless imposition on people's space and unpredictable mental states have a cumulative chilling effect on shopping in that area.
       Even employers are on edge. “I will not let our women go outside alone at night,” said Mike Trapp, general manager of Olson Plumbing, a long-time downtown business, descri-bing property desecration and public drunkenness.
       A few people were opposed to the ordinances. Loring Wirbel, co-chair of the Pikes Peak Area ACLU, left before his time to speak, but previously told the Westside Pioneer, “Any zones of no-panhandling are inherently unconstitutional, and Denver ACLU legal staff plans on preparing litigation virtually as soon as the ordinance passes.”
       Also, a couple of speakers argued that the ordinances reflect prejudice against the poor and that requesting money is not a crime.
       Eric Verlo, a former Westside bookstore owner, even brought a guitar to the lectern and played a few bars of “Buddy, can you spare me a dime?”
       Council itself was not in 100 percent agreement. At-large member Val Snider voted no, without explanation, on both ordinance motions.
       Numerous Westsiders recounted problems. Victoria Wagner, who identified herself as an avenue resident near the Red Rock Safeway, described fighting off a panhandler in the Safeway lot a week ago. “All we hear about is the downtown,” she said. “Downtown this, downtown that. We're being forgotten about on the Westside.”
       Jim Withrow, the Safeway manager, noted repeated confrontations with bums over a three-year span. “I've been called every name in the book,” he said. “We've gotten rid of quite a few, but we're going to have even more.”
       Jim Fenimore, a long-time near-Westside resident and former OWN president, pointed out that his neighborhood is currently the home of two “multi-million-dollar projects” (the Pinery wedding center and a conversion of the old county welfare building on Spruce Street into a Holiday Express). But transient problems exist now (including a wrecked park near him) and could worsen if the Westside isn't protected, he said.
       Linda Schlarb, owner of Old Town Propane in the 2700 block of West Colorado, said she deals with constant trespassing, people passed out and drug paraphernlia on her property. “We're losing business on the avenue,” she said. “We need help bad.”
       In his comments to council, Mayor Steve Bach observed that the issue has been before council five times since last January and with the holiday shopping season at hand, “it's time for an up-or-down vote, I respectfully ask,” he said.
       He conceded that it's a “hard decision,” to pick one neighborhood over another, but recommended the downtown because “I've been told by police they have more problems there than anywhere else.”
       In response to Westside concerns, Bach said that police have “ramped up activities, particularly on the Westside.”
       The mayor also emphasized that he is concerned about homelessness in the city, and he and his wife Suzi will be initiating a program to fight it.
       Police Chief Pete Carey outlined his department's efforts for the Westside, including two officers specifically assigned there, helping bring about 60 arrests since August. He added that officers from the Metro Vice & Narcotics and Tactical Enforcement units are also working cases on the Westside.

Westside Pioneer article