Police homeless outreach popular, but ‘no camping’ ordinance still planned

       You could almost call it good cop, bad cop.
       Colorado Springs police officials are reportedly moving forward with a dual-track plan for handling the chronically homeless - one that reaches out with a helping hand, another that's intended to stop their camping on public property.
       The helping side - represented by the Homeless Outreach Team (HOT) - has been getting an unpublicized trial run for the past three months in the area of Fountain Creek and the Red Rock shopping center. HOT consists of two officers and a social worker who meet with transients to guide them to resources they may need to get off the streets, according to Kurt Pillard, commander of the Westside-located Gold Hill police substation. He recounted a recent example of a man who told the HOT team members he could get back to work if he just had tools - they were able to direct him to a help agency that got him what he needed.
       HOT's trial-run results were so encouraging and the response so favorable from merchants (as well as the transient community) that the department decided this month to expand the program citywide, at least through December, Pillard said.
       (Giving the program a broader area should not mean a reduced response on the Westside, he clarified, pointing out that with “80 percent of the service providers and the problem” in the Gold Hill area, “they will be here more than other areas.”)
       After December, the future of HOT is uncertain because of budget shortfalls, but for now there is “a real groundswell of momentum,” Pillard said.
       The positive results have helped inspire several merchants along the West Colorado Avenue corridor west of 31st Street who have grown weary of petty crime (vagrancy being just a part of it). “We're considering a non-profit group that will tie the businesses together to make this a nicer area,” said Robert Maez, who has the Red Rock center's UPS store. He described himself as the “point man” in the merchant effort. “We'd like to improve the Westside shopping area and make it more secure. We want the community to feel more comfortable here.”
       Close to 40 businesses are now involved to some extent, he added. The geographical hope is to give a voice to business people (including the motels) between 31st and the Manitou Springs city limits.
       The merchants like the HOT team friendliness. “If someone says they just need help, we'll see what we can do,” Maez said. At the same time, he observed that some situations are beyond that, such as a recent case of an “intoxicated, belligerent” panhandler that required a police arrest.
       As for the “bad cop” side of the transient issue, unauthorized camping in public areas - common along Fountain Creek through the Westside, with related issues of sanitation, drunkenness, unsightliness and even open fires - has been a sore spot among residents and merchants on the Westside for years. Like the Red Rock area, Old Colorado City too has had “some minor instances of aggressive panhandling,” according to Charlie Irwin, president of the Old Colorado City Associates (OCCA) merchants group.
       However, police have been reluctant to take action against homeless camping because they could not find a city ordinance that spoke specifically to that issue, according to Pillard. The issue got dramatized last fall when legal challenges were threatened against the city by supporters of the homeless who believed the city too insensitive to their issues and needs.
       Last spring, police had considered adapting an ordinance that made it illegal to leave personal possessions on public land, but Pillard said that city attorneys now believe a more direct law - simply affirming that camping is illegal on public property - would be best. The law's wording is being crafted on the basis of “best practices” used in about a dozen other American cities, most particularly Orlando, Fla., he said.
       The concept of curtailing transient camping has received support from both the Council of Neighbors and Organizations (CONO) and the Westside's Organization of Westside Neighbors (OWN), Pillard noted.
       The next step will be to take the ordinance draft to City Council. “We've had an ongoing conversation with them on illegal camping, and we will ask for further direction,” Pillard said.
       The city has an average of 200 chronically homeless living outside at any one time, according to a previous estimate from Bob Holmes, the head of the city's homeless-service umbrella agency, Homeward Pikes Peak.
       If council passes the ordinance, the public effect would be the city installing “no camping” signs in public places where the homeless have been known to set up tents. The signs would be “similar to what you see now in parks,” Pillard said. “We'll probably just update the same signs.” Violators would be given citations, similar to traffic tickets.
       One unknown, however, is ultimately how effective such an ordinance would be. In the past, police have given trespassing citations to transients, only to have them ignored. Pillard said that could still happen with the “no camping” law, but if a vagrant fails to appear for a court date, he could then be arrested for that reason and possibly booked in jail. But, harking back to the HOT team effort, Pillard said such an outcome is not what the city/police would prefer. No matter what laws are in place, “I suspect those individuals will still be out there,” he said. “We'll do what we can to get them off the streets and into a better situation.”

Westside Pioneer article