Durango business owners upset with panhandlers “who are impacting the safety, charm and allure of our community” have come up with some creative – and potentially unconstitutional – ideas for dealing with the problem.
According to a survey circulated last week by the Business Improvement District, ideas to combat panhandling include more police in downtown Durango, informing panhandlers of community resources available to assist them, recruiting volunteers to work in opposition to panhandlers and bringing back no-loitering laws.
It is that last suggestion that most concerns the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, which put the city on notice in late 2014 that its selective enforcement of loitering laws violates the U.S. Constitution, an opinion that has been upheld in state courts and at the national level.
“The options provided by the Business Improvement District to ‘deal with panhandling’ mostly range from the unconstitutional to the absurd,” said Mark Silverstein, legal director of the Colorado ACLU, in an email to the Herald. “The First Amendment protects the rights of all people to peacefully ask for charity in public spaces. If the Business Improvement District wants to take that right away, so that shoppers won’t be inconvenienced by the sight of people living in poverty, they are going to need to find a way to repeal the First Amendment.”
BID circulated its online survey April 26, a day after hosting a town hall in which business owners and managers brainstormed solutions for “what to do about those who have chosen panhandling as a lifestyle – the transient panhandlers who are impacting the safety, charm and allure of our community,” according to the group’s newsletter.
The survey, which concluded Friday, garnered more feedback than any other BID survey, including one about whether retail marijuana should be allowed in the downtown, said Tim Walsworth, executive director of BID. Results won’t be available until late next week, he said.
The survey asked participants to vote for eight of 20 proposed solutions, including:
Bring back the no-loitering law;Install signs that say panhandling is illegal here;Update ordinances to make it illegal to sit or lie down on sidewalks; Restrict panhandling to certain areas and prohibit it in others, such as near parking meters.Walsworth said the proposal to bring back the no-loitering law would apply to everybody, not just panhandlers, and therefore might be legal. And other towns have successfully implemented “place restrictions” on where panhandling can occur, he said.
“Every idea needs to have exactly these questions asked and answered before they go forward, and if they’re illegal, well then it’s a nonstarter,” Walsworth said.
“I’m just responding to what our constituents said are ideas that we want explored.”
Another suggestion put forth on the survey was to build a statewide coalition to challenge the ACLU. Participants said communities are worried about challenging the ACLU on their own, and if many communities come together, they might be successful at getting the ACLU to “back down,” Walsworth said.
Other options pitched in the BID survey are more creative, if not combative. They include:
Make downtown a no smoking zone;Recruit volunteers to hold signs next to panhandlers that say, “Don’t give to panhandlers”;Hire street performers to remind people not to give to panhandlers. Any tips collected by professional street performers would be given to the Make it Count campaign, which supports local charities that help people in need.The idea to have volunteers picket panhandlers was suggested at the town hall and gained momentum from participants, Walsworth said.
“It just shows you how frustrated businesses are that they’d be willing to do that,” Walsworth said.
The idea to hire street performers to “outperform” panhandlers is a concept BID came up with about a year ago, he said.
“No. 1, it could work to divert donations away from panhandlers to charities, which we think is a better use of people’s hard-earned money, and No. 2, it would add to the ambiance of downtown,” Walsworth said.
Several business officials suggested an increased police presence and other ideas to improve the overall feeling of safety downtown, Walsworth said. Those suggestions included:
Increase downtown lighting;Put police officers on horseback;Strict enforcement of existing laws; Increase police walking and biking patrols;Equip downtown ambassadors with radios that would give them a direct link with police dispatchers.An increased law-enforcement presence could help deter illegal and anti-social behaviors such as aggressive begging, blocking sidewalks, littering, smoking marijuana, drinking alcohol, public intoxication, rudeness, yelling and cussing, Walsworth said.
“A lot of those types of behaviors, which are scary for people, can turn people off about downtown if they encounter it too much,” he said.
Last week’s survey included several proposals aimed to help panhandlers find resources, job opportunities or a place to stay. More specifically, ideas included:
Create a law-enforcement outreach team that would approach people in need, “constantly asking them if they want services”:Create a legal place to camp, with rules for behavior, that is away from neighborhoods;Create a jobs program for the homeless;Create and distribute a resource guide for Manna soup kitchen;Conduct regular outreach to panhandlers to ensure they know about available services.Walsworth said it’s going to take multiple strategies to address the panhandling situation.
“At the end of the day, we want our downtown to feel as safe as it can be and to be as welcoming as it could be, and it feels like it’s changing a little bit,” Walsworth said. “So we’re trying to stop it.”
He added: “We are not against homeless people. We are not insensitive to people who are in poverty and who have challenges and have things beyond their control. But we are against people who impact commerce and break laws in our downtown and scare away customers due to bad behavior. ... We make a distinction between the broader homeless community and a lot of these transient panhandler types who come down and take advantage of the rules, and they honestly take advantage of people’s generosity.”