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EDITOR’S DESK: Steve and Barack - it's good to be king

       By Kenyon Jordan

       Colorado Springs - a great place to be homeless.
       No one proposed that as a slogan at Mayor Steve Bach's recent public announcement of his “Initiative to End Homelessness in Colorado Springs.”
       But I'll bet some of the 100 or so in attendance were thinking it. The proposed “day center” alone would provide an appealing set of amenities for people with nowhere to go. A document at the announcement lists the following: showers and laundry facilities, case management and family connections, physical evaluations and treatment, job assistance and life skills services, community voice mail, lockers and storage bins.
       It helps to keep in mind that, thanks to various churches and charitable organizations, our region already has multiple locations for shelter, food, clothing, counseling, drug/alcohol rehab or medical help. In this mixed- up world of ours, it strikes me as odd that people living off the system attract more compassion than families working low-paying jobs to make ends meet.
       But that's a philosophical matter. What I'd really like to focus on is where the mayor is going with his Homeless Initiative. He's been talking about developing a plan like this for months (including at both of his Westside town halls last year, although he never asked attendees for their opinions on it). The announcement event was pretty slick. It was packed with people from the provider groups, so they'd obviously been clued in. And it was evident this is a pet project for his wife Suzi, because she was front and center at the event, focusing especially on the plight of families headed by single mothers (neatly skipping over the scenarios that most residents and business people see, especially in the summertime - those who panhandle, steal and slum in the parks). So maybe she pushed him into doing this.
       In any case, the Initiative fits disturbingly with the pattern the man has established ever since he got elected in 2011 as our first “strong mayor.” (By the way, this column strongly opposed that charter change.) Let's be frank, all political leanings aside, Bach sees the mayor's office the way Barack "Executive Order" Obama sees the White House - as a personal fiefdom. Servants of democracy? You've got to be joking. You think we as citizens are out of the loop? Not even our elected representatives (locally, that's City Council) have enough pull to be consulted on important matters, unless it's to carry the Royal Train.
       Take City for Champions. Yes, it has some revitalization potential, but it was worked out behind the scenes by the mayor and his downtown cronies and many of the details - along with future tax implications - remain unrevealed. One thing that's evident is King Steve's reluctance to take it to a public vote. Too much chance that rubes like us will vote no. What do we know, after all? We're just the people that pay his salary.
       The stormwater issue is interesting too. The regional task force, established by City Council (in concert with the county) over a year ago, has been holding numerous public meetings, gathering ideas and trying to fine-tune estimated costs. Their efforts may end up in a request for a tax, but at least it will be a straight-up vote. Also to their credit, a number of the task-force people had pushed for the city's Stormwater Enterprise Fund (implemented by council in 2007, voted out by the public in 2009) and saw first-hand how sour things can get when a major public change (plus a fee, in the enterprise's case) gets implemented without cultivating public support. True, Bach has said he's opposed to a stormwater tax. However, his conceptual bonding options could wind up costing residents in the long run, nor has he proposed the kind of dedicated funding that appears necessary.
       Westside leaders had a close encounter with his Mayorship in the downtown “beggar ban” ordinance of 2012 that his hand-picked former city attorney botched. Remember? After City Council approved a law that November, following the strategy that Chris Melcher insisted was the only one that could avert a lawsuit, the ACLU immediately challenged it in court… and won! Then, later, Melcher and Bach had the audacity to claim ownership of the one part of the law that survived ACLU scrutiny - the 20-foot-rule that limits where panhandlers can set up outside business entrances. They gave no credit to the people who really proposed it - a group of volunteer Westsiders. You can read that story here.
       All this leads us back (lengthily, I know) to the new Homeless Initiative. Yes, it's possible to make a case, as the Initiative does, that while there are shelters now, they don't have enough beds for all who seek them… Or that the day center is a must because the homeless lack a designated place they can hang out in the daytime… Or that more outreach (a lot more) is needed to make the “chronically homeless” into useful citizens… Or that the city is short on permanent housing that can be termed “affordable.” Certainly, a 10-year plan “to end homelessness” sounds bold, as if somebody means business.
       But can we get real here for two seconds? What is the mayor truly seeking to accomplish? Just like City for Champions and stormwater, he didn't bring City Council in on his Homeless Initiative, at least not as a body. None of them was part of the announcement - another sign of indifference to what everyday folks are thinking. Moreover, his actions over time have shown that his abiding love begins and ends with the downtown.
       Here's a cynical viewpoint: The mayor's actual goal with the Homeless Initiative (not to mention City for Champions) is to move the bums out of the downtown because it's bad for his business friends. The question then is where to move them. At least part of that answer could lie in the location of the proposed day center. Supposedly it hasn't been determined yet; a vaguely defined “community” including current homeless providers is to make the decision. But once a site is proposed, how do you rate the chances of adjacent residents or business owners who might object to it? They'd likely face a rash of politically correct scorn and NIMBY allegations, cheered on by Big Media. Would it be paranoid of the Westside - with at least two sizeable, currently empty industrial properties - to start putting its guard up right now, in preparation for at least being put on the short list?
       To sum up: No city in America has solved homelessness yet. Polishing Colorado Springs' reputation as a “great place to be homeless” (an actual, locally overheard transient quote) seems a dubious solution, at best, with the implications that such enhanced offerings will attract free-loaders from less concerned communities. With or without such "help," I think it's safe to say that, until the king in D.C. understands that a healthy economy beats a welfare state, our homeless problem will grow, no matter how many 10-year plans our local king comes up with.

(Posted 2/9/14)

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