Store signs forbidding panhandling, loitering or busking along Main Avenue are raising questions about rights of businesses and people on the street.
A few businesses have posted anti-loitering/panhandling signs on Main Avenue in downtown Durango. The makeshift signs are similar to “no-parking” signs posted by homeowners on public streets – largely unenforceable unless having to do with private property.
Business owners and managers who posted the signs said they have tried to talk with panhandlers and asked them to move along, but they became overwhelmed by the problem this summer.
At the same time, people have the right to panhandle and use public sidewalks.
“Just hanging out is not against the law,” Durango Police Department Chief Kamran Afzal said.
Police can ask people to leave private alcoves owned by businesses because that is trespassing, he said.
When it comes to the signs, police also lack legal standing to ask business owners to take them down. Civil law may govern the signs, but criminal law does not, Afzal said.
Durango social worker Eve Presler said she is concerned about the messages of such signs.
“When I think more about criminalizing poverty, it’s the unfair and unequal treatment directed to one class of people over another which revolves around economic status, and in many cases, race,” she said. “... Should this class of folks, merely sitting on the sidewalk with or without a sign, be treated differently?”
Presler said if she fell on hard times, she would likely sit on a sunny bench downtown because homeless residents do not have many places to go during the day.
Tim Walsworth, executive director of the Business Improvement District, defended the signs because they apply to all people who are acting inappropriately or keeping people from entering businesses.
“We are trying to remind everybody what’s appropriate and what’s not, and the signs are one way to do that,” Walsworth said.
He has not provided formal guidance on the signs to businesses in his district, but he pointed out they are enforceable if someone is on private property.
Business owners and employees displaying the signs said they are sympathetic to the plight of homeless residents, but ongoing problems with loitering prompted them to post signs in an effort to move people away from the area.
Jason Barker, owner of Colorado Grow Co., said he posted anti-panhandling signs because people were hanging out and leaving a mess in the entrance of the former Jewelry Works store, a space his business rents.
The signs posted state: “No soliciting or busking in front of this business. Police will be called for any violators.”
The signs helped deter people who were leaving cigarette butts and trash, he said. “I prefer they would stay off my property.”
Barker said he has not called the police since the signs went up last summer.
Property owners have the legal right to ask people to leave their private property, Afzal said. Police will respond to calls about loitering and help de-escalate situations if needed, he said.
“I would always rather people call,” Afzal said.
No one can be ticketed for loitering or panhandling, but police can enforce trespassing laws and keep people from obstructing doorways, he said. He is not aware of a law that would govern leaning against private property, but common sense would say property owners can dictate the use of their property, he said.
A “No Loitering” sign posted on the window of a building that formerly housed Stuart’s of Durango was posted to help keep people out of the private doorway, said real estate broker John Wells.
“I think it probably helped a little bit,” he said.
Irish Embassy Pub’s General Manager Phil Brennan used to talk directly with people to tell them to move along, if necessary.
“If they are just sitting there, it’s not an issue,” he said.
But the problem seemed to worsen, and he found himself talking with people every day, so he posted “no loitering or panhandling” signs.
“This summer, I just had enough,” he said.
Presler said addressing the deeper problems underlying poverty and the reasons why people spend time on the street, such as a shortage of affordable housing, is going to take time. But she does not want people to take a “not-in-my-backyard” attitude about poverty, she said.
“I really wish people would be more part of the solution,” she said.