At the west side Safeway shopping center, panhandlers can be hard to miss.
"This is how bad it is over there: There was a lady in a bikini, hula hooping, standing on Safeway property," local hotel owner Mike Crepeau says. "And her associate had his hand out with a sign. She's in a bikini! Hula hooping. With a pink-and-white hula hoop. Standing right there under the Safeway sign."
Crepeau doesn't want the name of his business printed, because he says other business owners who have spoken to the media have had their properties vandalized. And that's another problem that's plagued "No Man's Land," the stretch of Colorado Avenue from 31st Street west to Manitou Springs — crime.
In the past few months, there was the robbery of the Papa Murphy's store by a machete-wielding suspect. Howard York was arrested for that crime, and shortly afterward, the body of Crysta Chisholm, a 32-year-old vagabond mother of four, was found stuffed underneath his west side trailer.
Then there was the woman who was allegedly assaulted in the Safeway restroom. The incident, along with customer complaints about aggressive panhandlers, prompted Safeway to hire a security guard.
Meanwhile, stakeholders say, the usual police cars show up at motels lining the road, where crimes like drug use and prostitution are becoming the norm.
With ownership shared among the state, El Paso County, Manitou Springs and Colorado Springs, it's long been unclear who should care for the area. Basically, no one has. But after years of planning, big changes could be on the way: everything from campaigns to stop panhandlers, to stepped-up police enforcement, to huge infrastructure investments.
A gathering of minds
In the past few years, government workers have been meeting to look at infrastructure solutions. Neighborhood watch groups have honed in. The Colorado Springs Police Department's Homeless Outreach Team (HOT) has started patrolling. Area business owners have formed the Avenue Merchants Association, aimed at calling attention to problems and looking for solutions.
The area's also become something of a favorite cause for El Paso County Commissioner Sallie Clark and her husband, Welling, president of the Organization of Westside Neighbors. On April 25, Welling hosted the first official meeting of the No Man's Land Stakeholder Task Force at the Gold Hill Police Substation.
The gathered group was impressive: Sallie Clark, Colorado Springs City Councilors Merv Bennett and Lisa Czelatdko, Manitou City Councilor Coreen Toll, Colorado Springs Police Chief Pete Carey, Homeward Pikes Peak Director Bob Holmes, plus representatives from the El Paso County Sheriff's Office, the police department, neighborhood and merchants groups. The group talked at length about the problems they were experiencing, especially the panhandling.
"I've been with Safeway 36 years and I've never seen this," said Safeway store manager Jim Withrow.
Others nodded in agreement. But most recognized that solving the problem isn't as simple as stepping up police enforcement. As HOT Team member Brett Iverson noted, police can only issue tickets if customers report incidents where panhandlers are aggressive.
"It's not illegal to walk up and down the sidewalk," he told the Indy before the meeting. "It's not illegal to look weird."
Iverson also noted that most No Man's Land panhandlers aren't homeless. Some beg as an alternative to getting a job. Others can't work due to age or disability, find they can't get by on their government checks, and beg to make up the difference.
Solutions on the way
Despite the obstacles, the task force did come up with some ideas.
Colorado Springs officials offered to look into tweaking an ordinance to make it illegal to panhandle on Colorado Avenue, which is technically a state highway. Law enforcement agreed to ask area businesses to bring buildings up to code, and to abide by nuisance ordinances. The group was planning to contact service providers that could help needy residents. And merchants said they'd consider asking customers not to give to panhandlers, because money might be used to purchase drugs and alcohol.
Bigger dreams were also discussed — getting special tax breaks for the area, installing security cameras, forming a business improvement district — for the future.
One big change, however, could be just around the corner. On April 26, county commissioners approved a contract for a civil and traffic engineering planning and design study of the area by the firm Felsburg Holt & Ullevig. The Colorado Department of Transportation is funding the $300,000 plan, which will involve a public process.
The plan means that No Man's Land will be one step closer to the transformation outlined in the draft Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority II, a proposal to renew a sales tax that funds a set list of road projects chosen by its member governments. No Man's Land has been a popular project for the renewal, with the county, Colorado Springs and Manitou Springs putting improvements for the area on their projects list. Voters will decide whether to fund PPRTA II in November.