Downtown ‘problems’ might not exist

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The Business Improvement District and Downtown Partnership have set aside $137,000 to address problems caused by the street population by hiring off-duty police officers to patrol downtown, but neither the groups nor the police department have any statistical data to show that “problems” truly exist.

Beth Kosley and Steve Engel of the Downtown Partnership say they are paying four off-duty police officers to be on the lookout for “inappropriate behaviors.”

However neither Kosley nor Engel — nor the Colorado Springs Police Department — know how many crimes are associated with the “inappropriate behaviors” of the homeless population downtown.

The police don’t track crimes based on types of people, said Lt. Rafael Cintron, public information office for the police department.

“When the Business Improvement District contacted the police, it was after a survey of 1,400 downtown businesses,” Cintron said. “And it turned out people were concerned with inappropriate behavior such as aggressive panhandling, urination in public. We had the crime analyst pull up the statistics, and the numbers don’t reflect that concern. If there’s a problem, we aren’t hearing about it.”

Kosley said 15 percent of those receiving the survey responded, and that a number of respondents mentioned inappropriate behavior, such as panhandling.

“It was the highest comment by far,” she said, noting that she did not know the exact number of respondents who complained. “These people live here, work here, play in downtown. And they said public behavior is not acceptable to us, do something about it.”

Cintron said that police department statistics don’t reflect the “growing problem” that the BID and Downtown Partnership claim exists. The police aren’t frequently called to the downtown area, he said.

“The numbers aren’t there,” he said. “We’re not saying that it’s not occurring, but we’re not able to address it, because we aren’t getting the calls. And, when we do get calls, they’re low priority because the police usually are dealing with something more serious than aggressive panhandling.”

Actual threat or urban legend?

In a white paper entitled “Street People Letter,” Kosley, the Downtown Partnership’s executive director, cites several “facts” as reasons why the partnership and the BID need to address the “problem” of the street population.

“Worse, the most recent reports we have received speak to actual physical threats to safety, in the form of mugging, a baby-snatching attempt and robbery in a home by an assailant,” the report says.

When asked about the mugging, baby-snatching attempt and robbery, Kosley referred to the incidents as “anecdotal,” but Gold Hill Commander Kurt Pillard used another term: urban legend.

“You know, once these things are repeated three or four times, people start believing them,” he said. “I asked the Business Improvement Board when they were here, meeting with me and the assistant city manager, if that sounded logical. If it did happen, wouldn’t someone call 911 to report that someone tried to take their baby? No one ever called the police on an incident like that. It’s urban legend.”

Pillard said that most of the calls that the police receive about downtown concern “low priority” incidents such as panhandling or public urination. The calls about downtown — for any reason — he said, aren’t any more prolific than for any other part of the city.

“People are going about their business downtown and see inappropriate behavior, but they don’t bother to call us,” he said. “They get frustrated. And in the grand scheme of things, most of the calls we do get are low priority.”

Kosley and Engel admit that most of their evidence about problems associated with the homeless is “anecdotal.” But the lack of statistical evidence doesn’t make the problem less serious, they said. The problem, in their opinion, is getting people to contact the police.

E-mail inappropriate

The Downtown Partnership sent an e-mail announcing the off-duty patrols on Oct. 3. The e-mail addressed the problem of the homeless population, warning: “These ne’er do wells can be dangerous. They carry at least three knives at all times. These guys tend to be disease ridden: HIV, Hepatitis C, lice. Physical contact with them is dangerous.”

Pillard said the comments were made by a police officer during a training session for the newly hired foot patrol.

“He was addressing one or two transients, and his own experience with them,” Pillard said. “We certainly weren’t saying the entire transient population is dangerous.”

The e-mail also said the police presence will “minimize the presence of the street population and vagrants, and to reduce incidents of inappropriate public behaviors that have escalated in the downtown area: verbal harassment, loitering, public drinking, urination and aggressive panhandling … the patrol schedule will vary to keep the bad guys off guard, unable to predict when and where an officer will show up.”

Engel’s name, as president of the Downtown Partnership, appeared at the end of the e-mail, which was sent to downtown businesses.

However, he emphatically denied writing the e-mail.

“I just found out about it,” he said this week. “It’s not how I feel and I don’t think it fully reports the effort of the Downtown Partnership. It was certainly inflammatory.”

Kosley took responsibility for the e-mail, saying that it should never have been sent.

“I apologize for it,” she said. “I was trying to get the attention from the business owners who don’t make the calls (to the police) when they see incidents. It was inappropriate for me to use that language, and Steve’s name should have never been on it. I’ve heard Steve talk about this for many years, and those harsh words would never come out of his mouth. I shouldn’t have used them.”

Kosley said the association would send an apology to downtown businesses.

Homeless population: mostly women, children

Who are “those people” – those men with backpacks and sleeping bags that are causing such alarm that, according to the Downtown Partnership’s white paper, they scared a woman back into her car just by their presence outside the main door of the Penrose Library?

According to Homeward Pikes Peak director Bob Holmes, about 85 percent of the Pike Peak region’s 1,450 homeless are “crisis homeless” — women and children left without homes temporarily. The other 15 percent are chronically homeless.

“Most of those live at the base of Pikes Peak, in old railroad caves or in camps in the mountains,” he said. “It’s hard to get an accurate count, because these people don’t mix with outsiders. They don’t panhandle, and they don’t access services. They live by themselves, keep to themselves.”

The rest are downtown, taking advantage of services like the Marian House, the Salvation Army or Homeward Pikes Peak.

“It’s important to remember that 62 percent of the people who eat at the Marian House once a day are not homeless,” he said. “They’re the working poor — they have jobs — or they’re retired on fixed incomes. They can afford a place to live, but can’t always afford food.”

It’s also important to note that not all panhandlers are homeless, he said. Many consider asking for cash as a “flexible work environment,” he said.

Cost of providing services

Holmes estimates that each homeless person in Colorado Springs costs taxpayers about $36,000 annually for police, fire and emergency personnel, as well as health care visits to emergency rooms.

“But to do something, our program will cost about $18,000 – half of that,” he said. “And it gets them off the street. The HUD (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) program is about $6,000 a year, $6,000 for a social worker and $6,000 for prescription medication and food. It costs twice as much to ignore the problem.”

Holmes said that money, especially to hire trained staff, is the main issue.

“We have rooms, but we don’t have money for case management workers — people to go out, build relationships and move them off the street,” he said. “Sometimes it takes building up of trust to get people off the street into these apartments. And we don’t have the people who are trained to do it.”

He said a similar New York City program — a city with a much larger homeless population than Colorado Springs — has helped 82 percent of the people who enter the program not return to the streets.

As for the money being spent on extra police protection? He declined to suggest how the Downtown Partnership should spend its money.

“I was not consulted,” he said. “But if I had just a small part of that money, I’d have the case managers to do outreach downtown, to work with individuals. I did take part in the training sessions, and the police will be able to refer individuals. But with $137,000 I think I could come up with different options that are more cost-effective and will get done what they want to get done — not have people hassled for money.”

Michael Stoops, acting director of the National Coalition for the Homeless in Washington, D.C. said the Downtown Partnership’s and BID’s measures are “draconian.”

“There are ways to address the problem that are less expensive,” he said. “If they hired civilian outreach workers to intervene, mediate disputes, do case management, it would be cheaper. Some cities — such as Fort Lauderdale — have tried this and been very successful.”

Homeless people seldom commit violent crimes, said Stoops, who has been working with the homeless for three decades.

“They tend to be the victims versus the perpetrators,” he said. “If they have criminal behavior, it’s much more ‘quality of life’ violations: panhandling, that kind of thing. There’s no evidence that homeless people commit more or less crime than the rest of the population.”

Moving people off the street should be the solution, not writing misdemeanor tickets for bad behavior, Stoops said.

But the problem is that the homeless frequently have more than just economic problems.

Holmes said the majority of homeless in the Springs have mental illness or substance abuse issues — sometimes both.

That’s why, both men said, policing alone isn’t the answer and that social work is a broader solution to the issue.

Kosley said the partnership considered “ambassador” programs and decided that they would not address the issue.

“We just dropped it in favor of the policing,” she said. “We felt it was more effective.”

Patrols a ‘minor step’

Engel said the Downtown Partnership isn’t relying solely on policing. He called it a “minor step” in a multi-step solution.

What are the other steps?

Kosley and Engel said they are meeting with Holmes to “get educated” about what Homeward Pikes Peak thinks will help ease the problem downtown.

“We certainly have been talking to a lot of organizations,” Engel said. “What we know is anecdotal and the police say they can’t fix the problem, if we don’t call. The only way to improve behavior downtown is if everyone downtown works in a coordinated effort.”

Kosley points to lack of resources as the main problem.

“I’d like nothing better than to see more outreach on the street,” she said. “Pikes Peak Mental Health, more agencies, out there, working. Adding on case management costs money to fund it. We need to do more to provide the right kinds of services. Policing is just a minor part.”

Engel said the issue is simple.

“Some people say this shows a lack of compassion on part of the leadership of downtown,” he said. “That’s not what it is, not at all. Very simply, people who are using the public spaces have a privilege and a right to enjoy them. And with every right, comes a responsibility. At the lowest level, the responsibility is to behave appropriately. That’s what we’re asking.”

Amy.Gillentine@csbj.com