The Business Improvement District plans to advocate for stricter laws to reduce the visibility of panhandling, a greater police presence downtown and increased outreach to help people in need.
BID Executive Director Tim Walsworth on Friday presented the ideas to tackle panhandling that garnered support in a recent survey and backing from the BID board.
“We’re hoping to discourage the transient and professional panhandlers that are impacting the perceived safety and cleanliness of our downtown, as well as help those who are truly in need,” he said in a written news release.
The two most popular ideas in a BID survey were police walking patrols and new laws – each gaining more than 300 votes in the survey.
More than 500 people took the survey and about 75 percent of participants represented the business community. Businesses fund the BID through taxes. The participants were asked to select eight ideas from the survey.
The BID plans to work with the city to refine the local law that restricts aggressive panhandling and wants to restrict sitting or lying down on the sidewalk, Walsworth said.
It also wants the city to a explore a new loitering law that would not be specific to panhandlers, and a law limiting where panhandling can occur.
City Attorney Dirk Nelson said he talked with Walsworth about the possibility of a law that might make blocking sidewalks slightly more stringent, but he has not talked about it with the Durango City Council.
He plans to research legal options for the council to consider before a study session.
Other cities, including Colorado Springs, have banned people from sitting or lying on sidewalks. Colorado Springs city spokeswoman Jamie Fabos said in an email she is not aware of any legal challenges to the ordinance.
Cities that have passed sit-lie laws must make exceptions for parades, medical emergencies and other situations, John Krieger, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, said in an email.
“When a government overreaches by turning ordinarily lawful and innocent conduct into a crime, there are often absurd and ridiculous exceptions that have to be made as a result,” Krieger said.
Courts also look with disfavor on laws that are clearly targeted at a vulnerable or unpopular segment of the population, he said.
Police Chief Kamran Afzal said during Friday’s BID meeting that if the city pursues a statute focused on loitering to limit panhandling, the city would lose in court because panhandling is a First Amendment right.
He said he was not familiar with a law that would ban sitting or lying on the sidewalk. But if the police ticketed someone for this infraction, the person would likely be unable to pay it, he said.
Afzal is putting together a small Community Engagement Team to work to address such reoccurring issues in the community. He expects the team to work on why the problem of panhandling behavior is occurring and work with partners in the community to address it.
He expects to have two officers on the team by mid-June, and they will likely work afternoons and early evenings, although their schedule may vary.
“You should see a pretty high presence in the downtown area,” he said at the meeting.
He expects the officers to talk to panhandlers and get their perspective and also refer them to resources, if they are interested.
A law enforcement homeless outreach team received strong support in the BID survey, with more than 200 votes.
In addition to advocating for legal change and law enforcement, BID has a slew of other goals.
It plans to support the creation of a legal place for homeless people to camp, where rules are enforced.
The group plans to simplify its Make it Count campaign. Instead of focusing on giving to charities instead of panhandlers, the organization will promote the message: Do not give to panhandlers.
Walsworth plans to give tips to Main Avenue business people on how to deliver the message to tourists.
BID also plans to select strategic places to put up flower boxes and bistro tables so panhandlers can’t be in certain areas and create and distribute signs that promote no trespassing, no leaning on windows and no smoking within 15 feet of a doorway.
The BID did not include flower boxes or the additional signs in its survey. But Walsworth presented the ideas to the business community during the town hall meeting focused on panhandling.
To help expand awareness about services, the BID plans to rehire the homeless outreach coordinator and work with nonprofit organizations to raise awareness about local services.
The survey found some support, 127 votes, for a resource guide that would be distributed to panhandlers.
The BID’s downtown ambassadors will work more hours this year compared with last year, and they will be more direct about asking visitors not to give to panhandlers and call law enforcement more frequently if they see infractions.