Under the glittering holiday lights last December, Colorado Springs police embarked on a massive campaign to get those who are most in need during the winter months off downtown's streets.
The crackdown on homeless people who were loitering, aggressively begging or camping was conducted between Thanksgiving and New Year's Eve. In the end, 49 people landed behind bars for minor offenses, 16 of them for aggressive panhandling.
Police called it "holiday detail," a campaign endorsed by City Council, which in recent years has toughened laws against panhandling. The move follows demands for more enforcement from a handful of downtown shop and restaurant owners concerned that homeless people interfere with their businesses.
Michael Stoops, a national spokesman for the nonprofit National Coalition for the Homeless in Washington, D.C, called the sweeps discriminatory.
"What it is, is the criminalization of homelessness," Stoops said.
'It was a great effort'
Mayor Lionel Rivera wasn't available for comment at deadline. But at least one advocate for the homeless supported the campaign -- Bob Holmes, executive director of Homeward Pikes Peak: "It was a great effort over Christmas in our town. I think the police are vigilant over downtown."
Meanwhile, others are questioning whether the 680 hours of police overtime at a cost of $31,000 to taxpayers was worth it.
"Why spend your money ticketing and incarcerating people?" said Cyndy Kulp, an advocate for renters and the homeless. "When they are released, they will just be homeless again. ... I'm sure the police have other priorities, too."
Stoops agreed: "It's not a good use of city resources. For one, it pushes the problem into other neighborhoods. Second, it creates a burden on police, courts and jails."
He added that the money could have gone to affordable housing programs and other homeless services.
Boozing and smoking
However other advocates, led by Homeward Pikes Peak, a group that coordinates homeless resources, have in recent months pushed for more enforcement. Holmes recently asked the City Council to create no-panhandling zones, but city attorneys said such a measure was probably unconstitutional.
Speaking out against panhandlers, Holmes denied that tougher laws hurt the homeless.
"Ninety-nine percent of the time the money [panhandlers make] is spent on drugs or alcohol," Holmes said.
Kulp was shocked that a fellow advocate for the poor would "generalize and stereotype" with such certainty.
"I've seen homeless people who panhandle spend the money on food," she said, adding that a softer approach is needed.
More sweeps to come?
But like Colorado Springs, cities across the nation favor tougher laws.
A study released by the coalition in November -- "Illegal to be Homeless: The Criminalization of Homelessness in the United States" -- found that 57 of 179 cities surveyed recently conducted sweeps similar to the one downtown.
It is unclear whether more holiday campaigns are to come.
Lt. Rafael Cintron, a spokesman for Colorado Springs police, said money is a factor.
The department does not specifically fund holiday enforcement. Last year, funds to pay officers overtime happened to be available for the campaign, Cintron said.
--Michael de Yoanna
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