The Durango Business Improvement District has seen an uptick in the number of “characters” drifting into downtown and is calling on merchants to make it difficult for them to “do their business” downtown.
This is how the BID describes the state of panhandling in its Sept. 20 newsletter, which is sent to 1,300 subscribers who want to keep up with downtown happenings.
“Durango (Police Department) cannot physically remove them, but the more difficult businesses make it for them to do ‘their business’ on our sidewalks, the less inviting the streets of Durango will be,” the newsletter reads.
Some homeless-prevention advocates feel the vernacular seems a little cold, crude and unprofessional in describing people who panhandle.
“That’s very upsetting,” said Rachel Bauske, executive director of the Durango Community Shelter. “These are human beings. It’s somebody’s mom, dad, brother, sister, daughter, son, uncle. These are people, not ‘characters.’”
And the idea that panhandlers are conducting a “business” paints everyone with one broad brush stoke, regardless of whether they chose panhandling as a source of income or have no other choice, Bauske said.
“It doesn’t look like their business is thriving to me if they’re sitting in the hot sun for six hours,” she said.
Tim Walsworth, executive director of the BID, stood by the language used in the weekly newsletter, saying there are two ways people could interpret “characters,” and for some people, panhandling is a business – “but it’s in quotes for a reason.”
“We didn’t mean any offense by it. We just mean some of the same people that we’ve seen before are coming back into our downtown and perhaps causing some problems,” he said.
Walsworth said the Business Improvement District is sensitive to the homeless and panhandling issues, and is working with community partners to steer people toward services and to encourage the public to donate to the “Make it Count” campaign, which benefits charities that serve people in need rather than just one person.
He characterized homeless people and panhandlers in three ways:
Those dealing with circumstances out of their control and are trying to do something about it.Those who have substance-abuse and mental-health issues that prevent them from getting the help they need to live a different lifestyle.And those who have chosen homelessness or panhandling as a lifestyle.All three types of people have a right to live as they choose, Walsworth said, but what is not OK is when people yell at passers-by, block sidewalks, smoke within 5 feet of doorways, are publicly intoxicated and are being a nuisance.
“We have a problem with those folks,” he said. “We’re just trying to use all the tools at our disposal to keep our downtown safe and happy for everybody.”
BID hosted a town hall in April “to gather ideas 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.”
Again, advocates for the homeless take exception.
“I work in the nonprofit world. So I’m more concerned with the well-being of the most vulnerable in our community. I’m not as concerned about things looking pretty for our tourists,” Bauske said.
She added: “I understand that business owners feel that their income is being affected by panhandlers, and I understand that it can be frustrating if your well-being is being jeopardized. These are people. It’s one of those things I would love to challenge business owners to start volunteering at the Manna Soup kitchen if they haven’t already or start volunteering at the Durango Community Shelter if they haven’t already and at least get to see a different side of homelessness and poverty.”
Kathy Tonnessen, executive director at Manna, said she doesn’t fault Walsworth or the BID for its approach to panhandling, because the BID has taken a lot of heat from business owners who are frustrated by the situation. But it is important to look at everyone as individuals.
“It’s hard for any of us to know where someone is in their life process without sitting down and talking to them,” she said.
Bauske said one bad apple shouldn’t spoil the bunch.
“If you have one aggressive panhandler or several aggressive panhandlers, suddenly we’re saying all panhandlers are aggressive and their business is thriving. We just need to be very mindful of not stigmatizing people in poverty.”
It is “challenging” when able-bodied people choose to panhandle rather than get a job, but that’s not the majority, she said.
“I am blown away every day by their grit, and their determination and their strength and their resilience,” she said of the majority of people who are facing homelessness or are homeless.