New bum hotspot: 29th and Colorado
Residents call in Guardian Angels

       The Guardian Angels may be getting a mixed reaction from merchants at Red Rock shopping center, but they have been invited to patrol the area of 29th Street and Colorado Avenue.
       “I welcomed them with open arms,” said Gary Wright, who lives on Cucharras Street, a block south of the intersection. Between Cucharras and Fountain Creek is a swath of undeveloped land he recalls from childhood days as a wetland full of chokecherries. Now it has degenerated to a “high risk” area of vagrancy and squalor, he said. “My grandchildren can't go outside anymore unless they're with an adult.”
       Calling the police has been a hit-and-miss proposition, he asserted. “When you call the police, it's not a priority. Sometimes they show up, and sometimes they don't.”
       Agreeing with his concerns is Sef Castillo, manager of the Casa Cristal Pottery retail store at 29th and Colorado, who claimed that vagrants tore up his business' back fence and habitually panhandle, drink liquor in public, expose themselves and worse.
       For Castillo, the problem is not so much that the police don't come, but that they don't stay. “The police are here all the time,” he said. “But in a few hours they (the vagrants) are back.”
       That's where the Guardian Angels differ from police, according to Peter Dempsey, coordinator of the Colorado Springs chapter of the Guardian Angels. “What the cops can't do is stick around; they've got other things to do,” Dempsey said. “What we'll do is we stay in that area sometimes four to five hours. It's a good visual deterrent, especially when you have people demanding money from patrons.”
       Wright and Castillo joined a preliminary patrol with Dempsey last weekend. According to Wright, they found three mattresses and close to 100 empty bottles of cheap liquor. Another time, Wright said he found two bloody needles. “It's a mess down there,” he said.
       A concern for both Wright and Castillo is the liquor store on Colorado Avenue just west of 29th Street that opened about two years ago. Vagrancy had been somewhat of a problem, but now “it's 10-fold what we had before,” Wright said.
       Sarah Lee, co-owner of Springs Liquors, said that she and her husband, John, try not to sell to people who look like bums. It's also true, Castillo said, that vagrants sometimes make their way up to another liquor store up 30th Street.
       Even when Springs Liquors has cracked down, Castillo described a scam he's seen where somebody buys several bottles, then hands them out to others in the alley behind the store.
       Lee said the liquor store is not happy about the vagrants, either, because they sometimes panhandle in front of the store or hang out at the city bus bench a short distance away - drinking alcohol or bothering people.
       “I've had vagrants tell me Colorado Springs is a very soft spot,” Wright said, adding that when the city cracked down on loitering downtown, “it pushed them toward the Westside and Manitou. They're everywhere.”
       In the wintertime, Castillo said, there aren't as many - maybe five or six. “But in the summer, there's a bunch of transients,” he said.
       “A lot of homeless people don't care about the law or society in general,” Dempsey said. “Their goal is to get enough money to last through the day or get alcohol and do what they do with it… They have no physical means of getting food or shelter, so they prey on the good graces of people to get what they want.”
       Jim Fenimore, president of the Organization of Westside Neighbors (OWN), thinks part of the problem is the area soup kitchens not taking enough responsibility for the people they feed. “It's one thing to provide a service,” he said. “It's another thing when the service is attracting them.”
       A Colorado Springs Police spokesperson could not be reached for this article, but Jim Barrentine of the Gold Hill Division has previously told the Pioneer that figures do not show a crime increase on the Westside. He also has said that the Police Department is not eager to work with a volunteer crime-deterrence organization such as the Guardian Angels.
       Lt. Rafael Cintron of the Police communications office, when asked this week if, in general, it would be a good idea for the police to coordinate with the Angels, responded, “We don't go out to coordinate with them.”
       A police representative is scheduled to talk at the next OWN meeting Feb. 10 (see adjoining story).
       An additional ingredient in the mix is that the city plans to extend the Midland Trail this year between 21st and 31st streets, with part of it following the creek and part following a city right of way near the 29th and Colorado area. Chris Lieber, trails coordinator for City Parks, suggested this could help the vagrancy problem because parts of the creek would be cleaned up and, with trail use, there would be “more eyes” on the area. “What you typically see is a change in the environment,” he said.
       The Guardian Angels originated in New York about 26 years ago as a weaponless citizen patrol effort, based on the belief that criminals will leave an area if they know they are being observed. The Colorado Springs chapter started about a year ago. Although the downtown merchants have not supported the Angels, they have been well received by the East Platte Avenue Business & Neighborhood Association.
       The Angels' presence on the Westside started with citizen complaints about being hassled by vagrants at the Red Rock center. After Dempsey made a presentation at the Jan. 13 OWN meeting, the volunteer neighborhood group voted in January to send a letter inviting the Angels to the Westside, but, with a new board elected since then, the text of such a letter has still not been approved. One of the concerns was that the Red Rock merchants had not been consulted beforehand. A random sampling of those merchants by the Pioneer indicated that, although they feel they have a vagrancy problem, it is not severe enough to require civilian patrols that might turn customers away.

Westside Pioneer article