Business people and concerned residents brainstormed ideas to address panhandling at a packed meeting Tuesday at the Durango Public Library.
The Business Improvement District, Durango Chamber of Commerce and Local First hosted the meeting to talk about immediate and long-term solutions to address the negative perception of downtown some say is created by panhandlers.
“They are affecting downtown’s brand as a safe and welcoming place and affecting business. We have heard too many times from locals and visitors that they no longer want to come to downtown,” a handout distributed at the meeting stated.
Panhandlers became more visible in 2015 after the Durango Police Department stopped enforcing a law that prohibited loitering for the purpose of begging.
The police cannot enforce the loitering law because it violates the constitutional right to freedom of speech.
Since then, the city revised the law to address aggressive panhandling. The BID also started paying ambassadors to greet and guide visitors and launched a campaign to stop people from giving to panhanders, but the visibility of panhandlers is picking up again.
BID Executive Director Tim Walsworth presented nine ideas to address panhandling and then opened the floor to gather more. Everyone in attendance was given eight stickers to vote for their favorites among those presented.
The BID plans to conduct an online survey to collect more feedback on the ideas.
Ideas will be selected based on popularity, ease of implementation and the likelihood to be effective, Walsworth said. BID and other appropriate groups will put the ideas into action.
“There is no one thing that will fix this,” he said.
The BID suggested increasing lighting downtown, tweaking the city’s ordinance against aggressive panhandling to make it easier to enforce and hiring street performers who would compete with transient performers.
“There are some creative ways we can take our sidewalks back,” he said.
Performers hired by the BID would donate earnings to nonprofits that serve the homeless community, Walsworth said. The BID also suggesting increasing the police presence downtown year-round, which was one of the most popular ideas.
The BID has had informal conversations with police, but no commitments have been made, Walsworth said.
“We have had some initial discussions with them and believe there was some momentum,” Walsworth said.
The business groups that hosted the event were not trying to harm people in poverty, but they are trying to address problems created by panhandlers who are aggressive and intimidating, the handout stated.
Many of the strategies suggested at the meeting were aimed at making downtown less comfortable for panhandlers. For example, the BID suggested making all of downtown a no-smoking zone.
The BID also plans to continue its ambassador program focused on greeting and guiding tourists and the Make it Count campaign aimed at encouraging people to give to charity and not panhandlers.
Members of the crowd suggested putting up signs directly asking people not to give to panhandlers, and finding ways to connect panhandlers with jobs, among many other suggestions.
La Plata County Sheriff Sean Smith asked the group to consider a more comprehensive approach to connect panhandlers with services and housing.
“I feel like we are talking about the symptom instead of the problem,” he said.
He also offered to donate some radios to the Business Improvement District’s ambassadors so they can report criminal activity if they see it.
New Police Chief Kamran Afzal attended, but he did not address the crowd.
Former panhandler and homeless resident Jessica Hill offered to speak to the group about her experience, but was unable to because of time restraints.
While she was panhandling, she said she wanted work and got a job at a restaurant, but she was unable to hold it because of her severe anxiety. It wasn’t until good Samaritans provided her with stable housing and paid for her to see a mental-health specialist that she was able to overcome the anxiety. She is now looking for work.
“I have my hope back,” she said. She said panhandlers should treat business owners with respect, but there is also need for compassion, and some of the measures discussed at the meeting may make Durango seem like a loveless community.
“My suggestion would be for everyone to ask a panhandler, a homeless person, what their story is,” she said.