In their ongoing effort to find ways to reduce panhandling downtown, Durango city councilors are turning to Tempe, Arizona, where it is illegal to sit or lie on city sidewalks.
“We certainly are going to look at an ordinance and see if it makes sense for our community, and discuss if it can be enforced fairly and even-handedly,” City Councilor Chris Bettin said this week.
Councilors will look at a proposal for an ordinance that would ban sitting or lying on the sidewalk and would also prevent anyone from using a blanket, chair, stool or other non-permanent object to lie in the central business district.
“I don’t see how you can sit or lie on the sidewalk where if you walked straight you would trip and fall,” said Ted Hermesman, owner of the Main Mall.
Hermesman said he is concerned panhandling has reached a point that it is discouraging people from shopping downtown. He said the problem will eventually put more pressure on city finances and eventually hurt programs to deal with mental health issues and other efforts to help panhandlers.
“If you have to stand up, at least the panhandler has to do a little work,” Hermesman said.
While panhandling has been protected as free speech, Anthony Savastano, an attorney on the panel, said Tempe’s law is based on one developed in Seattle, which has been upheld as constitutional by a court.
Tim Walsworth, executive director of the Business Improvement District, cautioned that his counterpart in Tempe informed him that although the ordinance has prevented large groups of panhandlers from assembling in its downtown business district, it has shifted their activity to parks.
Durango’s current anti-panhandling law bars panhandlers from intimidating people, using foul language, touching people, impeding access, blocking sidewalks and asking for a donation a second time.
Additionally, to minimize problems in interactions with panhandlers, Bettin urged about 100 who attended a breakfast meeting Thursday morning between business and government leaders to report suspected drug deals and assault and battery incidents to the police, and they should be willing to press charges if they witness these incidents, he said.
Beyond looking at hardening the city’s rules on panhandling, Bettin said the city is thinking about finding a space downtown to have music and street performances not only to add vibrancy to the area but also to discourage buskers. He said a side benefit would be to provide a sort of entertainment competition for amateurs’ performances.
Walsworth said last year BID brought a string instrument group from Albuquerque to perform downtown, which made a routine summer day livelier and allowed BID to use the event to educate shoppers about its Make it Count campaign.
The campaign was created to discourage donations to panhandlers and to redirect those gifts to about 30 donation boxes downtown. The donations are given to social service and mental health agencies that assist people who are homeless.
Kathy Tonnessen, executive director of Manna soup kitchen, said the city should aim for positive interactions with the panhandling population and not focus only on police enforcement to change behaviors.
Jessica Hill, who was formerly homeless, said she resorted to panhandling only when she exhausted other resources and community services and still needed to pay for her cellphone and a storage unit.
She treated panhandling as a job. She was clean and respectful in asking for money, she said. She credited people she met while panhandling for helping her to seek mental health support and for leading her to employment.
“The bottom line,” Hill said, “was nobody wanted to be out there doing it.”