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Bus bench removed, then put back in as officials seek solution to vagrants hanging out

ABOVE: Because of transient loitering issues, City Transit pulled out the bus bench on the south side of Colorado Avenue at 28th Street for about three months. Its absence is noticeable during a snowy day in early November. BELOW; Later that month, the bench was back in place, having been reinstalled by a City Transit facilities crew.
Westside Pioneer photos
       A Donovan song from the 1960s starts with the verse, “First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is.”
       The same could be said for the city bus stop on the south side of Colorado Avenue at 28th Street.
       First it had a bus bench, then City Transit removed it for three months, then put it back in.
       According to City Police and City Transit officials, the initial removal in August was because of people using the bench as a hang-out with no intention of riding the bus.
       As Police Sgt. Michael Spitzmiller explained it, "the
transient population had been using the place to hang out. It was the same two or three people, day in and day out. They were not using the bus service. When the bus would stop, they'd wave it on.”
       Police issued “several” misdeameanor citations, related to alcohol and harassment, and directed the perpetrators away from the bench on multiple occasions, but the transients kept coming back, related Spitzmiller, who heads up the CSPD Homeless Outreach (HOT) Team.
       The thinking was that by removing the bench for a long enough time, the perpetrators would go away and cease to even consider that location as a hangout.
       In early November, when the Westside Pioneer first asked Spitzmiller about the issue, he expressed the view that the strategy was working. So did Craig Blewitt, director of City Transit, in a separate interview. “The intent is to change the culture so it's not available as a hangout,” he said at that time.
       The reason the Pioneer inquired about the issue was because a bus rider who uses that stop had contacted the paper to express dismay that the bench was gone.
       Hearing about that in early November, Blewitt said he could empathize. “Benches are a great amenity to riders. Some people have trouble standing for a long period of time, and in bad weather it's a place to sit.”
       Facts are a little fuzzy about how the bench wound up going back in. The initial interviews with Spitzmiller and Blewitt (when the bench was still gone) indicated no time frame for bringing it back. However, one day in late November, it WAS back. Vicki McCann, a City Transit spokesperson, told the Pioneer that Transit's facilities staff thought the time frame had been set at three months, and that's why they reinstalled it in November.
       Meanwhile, Linda Schlarb, who co-owns a nearby business, said she too had the impression that the removal had been open-ended. As a result, when the bench was restored she figured it was because of the Pioneer asking questions.
       None of that probably matters to the transients, who are again using the bench as a hangout, according to Schlarb.
       “It is back, and so are the vagrants,” she said in a recent e-mail exchange. Observing that as many as five of them are typically there, she described the bench as being “like their morning meeting place, when one of them isn't just passed out on it.”
       Her initial understanding was that the bench had come out because “not many people used it that actually rode the bus,” Schlarb said. “The police were over there constantly dealing with these guys and would find their booze stashed in the bushes behind it.”
       In a phone call and e-mail exchanges with Spitzmiller, the Pioneer was told that police cannot arrest people for committing the same misdemeanors over and over, such as in the bus-bench situation. “As far as us taking repeat offenders to jail, they need to have a warrant or have already been convicted by the courts and be in violation of their probation,” he said. “In most cases, the offender has pending cases and has not yet 'had his day in court.' Until this has taken place, we can only continue to issue citations and release the individual unless there is a stipulation by the courts from a previous court date. The short answer is: Until he has gone through the due process, he is considered to be innocent and is entitled to the same rights as you and I are.”

Westside Pioneer article
(Posted 12/5/14 Community: Ongoing Issues)

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