by Loring WIrbel
The city of Colorado Springs seems stuck between angry west-side merchants who want immediate tough enforcement of an existing panhandling ordinance against beggars in the no man’s land between Old Colorado City and Manitou Springs, and a city attorney who wants to use a downtown zone that includes Acacia Park to test a new panhandling ordinance – one that would eliminate many avenues of free speech and solicitation. In the meantime, Colorado Springs Police Department (CSPD) is letting community groups know that, whatever happens before the City Council in October and November, CSPD does not want to adopt a tough enforcement policy, but instead wants to treat panhandling in a manner similar to the way Homeless Outreach Team (HOT) officers have addressed the camping ban. Camping ban enforcement has been limited to HOT officers specifically trained to assist homeless people rather than simply arrest them.
As Active for Justice reported last spring, Mayor Steve Bach created a Downtown Solutions team as one of several teams to suggest new ordinances to clean up downtown. The team met with Pikes Peak Justice and Peace Commission members early in the year, to discuss the type of language or physical actions taken by a panhandler that might be interpreted as intimidation. But when a draft ordinance was presented to the council in August, City Attorney Chris Melcher’s draconian-like proposal called for a ten-block zone in which selling newspapers, soliciting funds for non-profits, and similar actions would be banned. While the problem of aggressive panhandling seemed to be worse on the west side, Melcher said there was too much private property that would preclude enforcement, and that the city wanted to use downtown as a test case for ordinances.
While early presentations before the council raised questions, some members of the council said that their relatives were afraid to go downtown because of the appearance of some homeless people. This would fit with the mayor’s implied intent of having a downtown that looked more presentable, without vagrants, transients, or even protesters to sully the atmosphere. In response, former City Councilman John Hazlehurst wrote a scathing column in the Sept. 19 Colorado Springs Independent, saying too many people in city government wanted a “laundered downtown.” Privately, many lower-level city officials are saying that the mayor and council will only make things difficult for the city if they try to remove people based on appearances.
As it is, the status of the ordinance has caused an uproar that may take months to resolve. An original plan for a first reading of the draft ordinance in September was pushed back to a date of Oct. 9, but city officials now say this meeting may only deal with proposed changes, and that a formal first reading may not come until late October. This could push a final vote on a revised ordinance well into November. In the meantime, merchants on the West Side are calling for immediate tough enforcement against panhandlers in the area surrounding the 31st St. Safeway.
Even if the issue of enforcement based on appearances is resolved, the Colorado American Civil Liberties Union sees two big problems with the ordinance being discussed: content neutrality, and classes of people being affected. On the issue of content, speech cannot be restricted on the basis of content alone, so the mere asking for money cannot be banned. There are already restrictions on aggressive forms of panhandling that involve threats of physical violence or repeated asking after a person has said “No,” so enforcement of such rules could end much of the problem. As for classes, one cannot say that it is OK for the Girl Scouts to ask for money and not OK for Occupy. At last summer’s Pridefest, PPJPC and other groups had fundraising efforts on the sidewalks around the festival, which clearly would be banned under the draft ordinance. Colorado ACLU Legal Director Mark Silverstein said that such restrictions, if not resolved, would be almost certain to spark a lawsuit.
While the city attorney has suggested a special temporary-permit process for selling goods or soliciting money, what happens if a political campaign sells T-shirts next to the Acacia Park bandshell on a Sunday, and a person is ticketed for selling handmade jewelry at the same location the next day? The selective enforcement seems almost illegal by design.
Groups concerned with public protest and with the rights of the homeless are beginning to speak up, and are planning to address the city council both on Oct. 9, and at future meetings. In the meantime, however, many angry West Side residents are appearing before council and writing letters to the editor insisting that when someone asks for money, “That’s simply not free speech.” It is likely that the rhetoric will get hotter by year’s end, before the panhandling issue is ever resolved.