Residents were split on the need to prohibit people from sitting or lying on city sidewalks during a hearing Wednesday at Durango City Hall.
Passionate residents said they were often afraid of panhandlers on Main Avenue and told stories about harassment and public intoxication.
“It is the responsibility of the city to make the environment safe,” said Jackson Clark, an owner of Toh-Ahtin Gallery.
Others said prohibiting people from sitting or lying on sidewalks unfairly criminalized homelessness. And they added that they had never been harassed.
“We want to see the root cause of poverty addressed by looking at alternatives for housing,” attorney Lynne Sholler said.
The comments will be compiled and presented to Durango city councilors to help them determine if they should set strict limits to sitting and lying on sidewalks, Assistant City Manager Amber Blake said. The councilors will discuss the topic April 24 in a work session that will not be open to public comment.
Durango’s law could be similar to an ordinance passed in many other cities that prohibits sitting or lying on public sidewalks, Durango City Attorney Dirk Nelson said, in an earlier interview.
For example, in Tempe, Arizona, everyone is prohibited from sitting or lying down on a blanket, chair, stool or other object not permanently attached to the ground. The law makes exceptions medical emergencies, use of wheelchairs, bus stops or attending public events, such as a parade.
Tempe’s law also allows people to use seating supplied by a business or the city.
Many business owners argued the character of downtown has changed in recent years. They said fewer people shop in the evenings because they are afraid of people on the streets. Others said they no longer schedule female employees to close their businesses alone at night.
While they would be willing to support other solutions to address homelessness, business owners also wanted to see the city take action to address what they see as a safety issue.
“Please keep our historical character, so we can all thrive,” said Jack Llewellyn, executive director of the Durango Chamber of Commerce.
Rachel Taylor-Saghie said she was concerned about street sales of illicit drugs that she had witnessed.
“It is completely out of hand right now,” she said.
Some people said the proposed law was aimed at making downtown visitors feel more comfortable rather than addressing a pressing safety issue. People asking for donations on the street were likely exposed to more risks than shoppers.
“I want to know how safe people feel when they have to beg for money,” Linda Daniel said.
Maureen Michaelson, 24, said she had been homeless, and it was always safer to be near streetlights rather than in the woods.
“You may be making a law so white people on the street are more comfortable. It’s not addressing the problem,” she said.