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'Tough love' for homeless 

Not everyone thrilled about plan to criminalize panhandling

click to enlarge Bob Holmes, executive director of Homeward Pikes Peak. - BRUCE ELLIOTT
  • Bruce Elliott
  • Bob Holmes, executive director of Homeward Pikes Peak.

Bob Holmes wants Colorado Springs to be a great place for homeless people to get off the street. But, he says, the city should also be a tough town in which to be homeless.

Addressing the Colorado Springs City Council last week, Holmes, executive director of Homeward Pikes Peak, which coordinates regional homeless services, outlined a series of sometimes-controversial actions he says will help the homeless get off the streets. Among them: outlawing panhandling downtown, cracking down on camping within city limits, and requiring people to carry and flash identification cards before they can eat at soup kitchens or stay in local shelters.

"You have guys at the soup kitchen who have been there for 20 years," said Holmes. "What have we done for them? We've enabled them to be homeless. We've covered the fixed costs of their lifestyle ... and enabled their pursuit of drugs and alcohol."

Free speech follies

But not everyone is convinced of Holmes' proposals.

"A lot of these people have no other way to make a living," said Louis Pugh, who is currently homeless and spent several days panhandling earlier this year when he lost his construction job after he was injured. "Now they're going to be criminals instead of just bums."

Last week, Holmes asked City Council to adopt a panhandling ban similar to one in place in Key West, Fla., and requested more strenuous police enforcement of city camping. ID cards, he says, will be introduced in December, partially in response to a federal Department of Housing and Urban Development plan that distributes $1 billion annually to homeless programs nationwide. The federal mandates require the card system in order to qualify for money.

As a result of Holmes' request, City Council has asked the city attorney's office to study the legality of such a ban -- which would prohibit panhandling in the core of downtown -- and present them with a recommendation at a future date.

Such panhandling bans have proliferated nationwide in recent years. But some run afoul of the constitutional First Amendment rights to free speech. A Colorado anti-begging statute that prohibited "loitering with the purpose of begging" was repealed after the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado filed a lawsuit in 1996.

The true purpose

Bans that restrict -- but not prohibit -- panhandling are more commonplace. Colorado Springs, as well as Denver, currently has ordinances that make panhandling illegal in doorways and near ATM machines. In 1999, Colorado Springs prohibited panhandling at highway on- and off-ramps and on median strips, citing the need to maintain public safety. The city also enforces against aggressive panhandling.

The ban in Key West, however, prohibits panhandling within an entire designated area -- which Holmes would like to replicate here.

"The ACLU has been opposed to these restrictive ordinances that criminalize protected behavior," said Randall Marshall, the legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida. Panhandling bans, Marshall says, often result in "criminalizing homeless."

The U.S. Supreme Court recognized solicitation as a First Amendment right in 1980. Consequently, the ACLU has fought against panhandling bans on First Amendment grounds. Marhsall says his organization has yet to challenge the Key West ordinance but may in the future.

Some panhandling bans, such as the one in Key West, may be "a technique to conceal the true purpose of pushing homeless from certain areas," says Benjamin Waxman, a volunteer attorney for ACLU Florida. In effect, such bans can be a method of appeasing businesses whose owners and managers simply don't want homeless people nearby.

The Key West ordinance's inclusion of most types of solicitation -- including but not limited to asking for assistance -- makes it harder to challenge on the basis that homeless are being singled out, Waxman says.

Mark Silverstein, legal director of the ACLU of Colorado describes Holmes' proposal to replicate a Key West-style ban here as a bad idea. After reviewing a copy of the Key West ordinance, Silverstein says his organization would likely oppose a similar law in Colorado Springs.

Enabling the cycle

However, Holmes maintains his proposals would cut away some of the roots of city homelessness. Panhandling, he says, enables the cycle of destructive behavior some homeless find themselves in.

He says that of the 1,000 estimated homeless people in the city, 100 to 150 are the chronically homeless who repeatedly seek shelter or services. He refers to those homeless people who refuse to cooperate with service providers and city officials as "arrogant homeless."

The nonprofit director denies that what he wants to do would curb individual freedoms.

"We're acknowledging their freedom to do what they want to do, but we have the commensurate freedom to decide how to spend our service dollars," Holmes said, adding that local homeless programs have increasingly provided monitored apartment-style housing for mentally unstable and chronic substance abusers who cannot make decisions for themselves.

Programs now offer 42 such apartments, and Holmes hopes to boost that number to 100. It's all part of a "five-year blueprint to house every citizen of Colorado Springs" that he will present to City Council.

The proposals may seem tough at first, Holmes says, but he defends them as a higher form of compassion than the usual handouts. He calls it "unconditional love combined with tough love."

Sparking a crime wave

Not everyone on City Council, however, is at ease with Holmes' proposals.

"I am uncomfortable with denying people their free speech," said Councilman Richard Skorman, who owns several businesses in the downtown area. "I certainly wouldn't want loitering laws or sweeps."

However, Skorman says he can hardly leave his door without other business owners approaching him with proposals to curb panhandling. Skorman says the solution -- existing laws -- may already be in place. But laws already on the books against aggressive or inappropriate panhandling, he says, have been weakly enforced.

Several homeless people who were interviewed for this story also expressed skepticism about Holmes' proposals.

Pugh, who is currently in a drug and alcohol rehab program, says he thinks that a panhandling crackdown would likely spark a crime wave. "If they stop panhandling, they're going to start forcing people to go into burglaries or purse snatching," he said.

Jim Jeakins, another homeless man, agreed. "The only other way is to steal everything," Jeakins said. "I know a lot of people who go into stores, eat and just leave the wrappers."

Jeakins, who is exactly the type of person Holmes might call "arrogant," says he does not like being "cooped up" in shelters or soup kitchens, but instead prefers to panhandle and camp outside.

"I know a lot of people who can't get a job," he said. "They're totally out of their minds. They might kill someone over 85 cents."

-- dan@csindy.com

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