Many residents are celebrating the city’s new ordinance prohibiting anyone from sitting or lying down on downtown sidewalks, curbs and other public areas. These folks are praising Durango City Council for taking action on the homeless and panhandling issues that – in their view – have turned our once friendly downtown into an unpleasant, dangerous place.
While we have called for effective action to address these problems, we are not boarding this bandwagon. And a big reason is the safety argument: that people sitting or lying on sidewalks are a special hazard to pedestrians.
We have heard the oft-repeated rumors that people sitting on downtown sidewalks have been intentionally tripping walkers as they pass by – the act a retribution for not sparing some change – but our experience shows that this is not happening.
As for pedestrian safety, a midafternoon stroll on Friday revealed Main Ave. sidewalks at a steady, busy spring hum. But it also revealed dozens of obstructions: vending machines and displays, recycling and trash bins, lamp posts and tree trunks, bicycles locked to racks and to parking meters, benches, dozens of folding sidewalk advertising signs, clothing racks and tables and chairs in their accompanying fencing at restaurants. These items, plus the crowd, turned the stroll into a slalom; in places the 12-foot standard sidewalk was squeezed to five feet or less.
Ironic, then, to realize that a homeless person sitting with a sign or an instrument uses public space in much the same way as a business that puts out merchandise or a brightly-lettered sign. Business or busker, the aim is the same. Slow down the pedestrian and catch the eye. And hopefully make a transaction.
Therein lies the problem, say those who oppose the new ordinance: “This is not a safety issue,” said Nathan Woodliff-Stanley of the Colorado ACLU. “The issue is that we find it uncomfortable to be confronted by the homeless, and the idea comes to us that we can solve the problem by making these people go away.”
But there is no “away” to send them to, and the ordinance further complicates lives by making it a criminal offense to be homeless.
“Sitting is not a crime,” Woodliff-Stanley reminds us, adding that the ordinance may now be used to harass people who may only appear to be homeless.
In our eagerness to solve this issue, we need to remember that. And the bottom line:
“People do not lose their right to exist in a public place when they lose a home.”