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Accidents deemed 'inevitable' as city lacks plan to stop median panhandling

       In the past year, despite safety worries, panhandlers on street medians have become part of the Colorado Springs landscape.
       That isn't changing anytime soon.
       In response to Westside Pioneer questions, a spokesperson for Mayor John Suthers outlined that while city legal research “is continuing,” the situation is
It wasn't long after court rulings led the city last fall to suspend most of its panhandling laws that people seeking handouts began appearing with regularity on street medians throughout Colorado Springs. This photo was taken looking south on 31st Street from Colorado Avenue.
Westside Pioneer file photo
complicated and no ordinance proposals are ready for City Council perusal. The spokesperson, Jamie Fabos, also offered no estimate when any such documents might be brought forward.
       Further light was shed on the issue at the August meeting of the Avenue Task Force (ATF), when City Councilmember Tom Strand said he had heard from the mayor that “we don't really have any solution on this.”
       Talking to Strand at the same meeting, County Commissioner Sallie Clark asked if there wasn't a strong chance of “somebody getting hit” while standing on a median begging for money.
       “It's inevitable,” Strand agreed.
       Clark reported seeing panhandlers at medians exchanging signs, “like a shift change” at a workplace. “It's a racket,” she asserted.
       The ATF is an ad hoc group of citizens, staff and elected officials seeking to improve public safety along the West Colorado Avenue corridor.
Tom Strand.
Courtesy of the City of Colorado Springs
Speaking to the ATF, Police Lieutenant Jeff Jensen explained that the median-safety issue is actually broader than most people realize. Not only is it now OK for beggars to stand on medians, “if the light is red, they can walk between cars,” said Jensen, who supervises the department's Homeless Outreach Team (HOT).
       To the question about what kind of people actually do panhandle, Jensen gauged that some of them are “people who are truly in need. But many more use the money people give them to support their addictions.”
       He said the real problem is people thinking that giving handouts to such people is the right thing to do. He recalled an individual, who was known to police as having addiction problems. “We would see him everyday [after being given money] go buy a bottle of vodka.”
       And when he eventually overdosed, “it was the people who gave him money that led to his death,” Jensen said.
       Earlier this year, Mayor Suthers issued a statement - in response to a Westside Pioneer question - urging people to give money to charities, not directly to panhandlers.
       It was last January when City Council voted to eliminate most of its panhandling-related laws. The body was following the advice of the City Attorney's Office, which had administratively suspended those same laws three months earlier, in the wake of court rulings across the country insisting that constitutional freedom of speech was at stake - even on street medians.
       At the time, Mayor John Suthers expressed special concern about the latter issue. “We think it is dangerous to stand on medians and panhandle,” he told council in January, adding that he and his staff would look into the matter. “We're going to do some research about accidents and things like that and put this in safety terms,” the mayor said.
       The Pioneer wrote to Suthers' city e-mail address in early August - about eight months since the council vote - to see how any median-related legal research was progressing. A response instead came back from Fabos, who then responded to a few follow-up e-mails.
       “I do share your safety concerns about such activity on medians, but unfortunately, by the court rulings, at the present time passive panhandling on medians is legal,” Fabos noted.
       Explaining the difficulty of the city's task, Fabos elaborated, “Crafting an ordinance that effectively limits expressive activity on medians requires significant thought, research, empirical safety data and coordination. This includes the collection and analysis of traffic engineering studies, accident data, median width, speed limit data, etc. throughout the city as well as the evolving law. The city's work on the matter is continuing.”
       Medians are raised concrete or landscaped areas that have been built between opposing lanes of traffic. According to Fabos, court rulings have declared that such locations are “traditional public forums for expression.”
       Perusing the online City Code Book using "median" as a search word, the Pioneer found the following ordinances that at least remotely apply to the issue:
       - 9.2.104A - Stating that a person on a median can't “intentionally obstruct” anybody else from using it.
       - 3.2.217 D2 - governing the placement of signs on medians (but saying nothing about people holding signs).
       - 9.2.112A - declaring it illegal to “sit, kneel, recline or lie down” on a median in the downtown or Old Colorado City - except there are no medians in Old Colorado City.
       One question that's often raised, but is not addressed in the Code Book, is how narrow is too narrow for a median to safely allow "traditional public forums." Widths around town can be two feet wide or less, including some with curved concrete surfaces. Even the Code Book's "median" definition in Section 10.1.202, lacks a mandate on size - although there is a separate requirement that medians in traditional neighborhoods must be at least 17 feet wide to allow landscaping.
       Welling Clark, the ATF chair, said he saw - on a slender Garden of the Gods Road median - a panhandler with one foot in the roadway. “The thing I hear from people is that they're afraid of hitting someone,” Clark said.
       The Pioneer had this final exchange with Fabos:
       Pioneer - “If an accident results from someone soliciting from a median, or the solicitor slips and falls under a car, etc. - wouldn't the city be liable for allowing an unsafe situation to exist?”
       Fabos - “The answer to this question requires legal analysis and advice, which the City Attorney's Office does not provide to the general public.”

Westside Pioneer article
(Posted 8/24/16; Community: Ongoing Issues)

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