The Downtown Partnership says the added police patrols it is paying for are making people feel safer, but homeless advocates say the money being spent should be used to find a permanent solution.
The Business Improvement District and the Downtown Partnership set aside $137,000 to hire off-duty police officers to address problems they claim are caused by the street population.
Extra-duty police also patrol other retail areas: First and Main Center on Powers, The Citadel mall and the Chapel Hills Mall.
The police department charges $25 an hour, said Anita Smith, who handles extra-duty assignments. The police department puts the price tag at $9,943.75 for October’s patrols. The partnership has not been billed for November’s or December’s police work.
Both the partnership and the police say the program has been successful during its first two months. Patrols are scheduled to continue through the end of the year.
“All the information I have is anecdotal,” said Beth Kosley, executive director of the Downtown Partnership. “I’ve gotten e-mails and phone calls from people who say the additional police presence makes them feel safer downtown. And that was the goal all along.”
Gold Hill Commander Kurt Pillard said officers issued eight citations during the programs first eight weeks.
“They haven’t issued very many,” he said. “They’ve steered several people toward social services and other programs that are available to them.”
One of the citations was for aggressive solicitation (it is illegal in Colorado Springs to ask people for money more than once). Pillard said the other citations were for drinking in public, drinking in a vehicle, possession of marijuana, loitering and trespassing.
He said that several citations were issued to one person and that not all the citations were issued to homeless people.
The department did not track who received citations before the program started, Pillard said, so no comparisons are available.
Bob Holmes, director of Homeward Pikes Peak, an agency that provides housing for the homeless, isn’t surprised by the small number of citations.
“First of all, only a few people are creating most of the problem,” he said. “And secondly, word gets around quicker — faster than the Internet. They know what the deal is. And that’s a positive thing for the ambiance downtown.”
Holmes said he has spoken to some of the people who are “targets” of the program.
“They are getting busted for doing things they shouldn’t be doing,” he said. “So the program is working to that extent. And interestingly, there’s no bitterness on their part. They know they’re not supposed to be drinking in public. So now they’re much more careful, and that’s the aim of the program. They don’t want people swigging out of a vodka bottle on the street corner downtown.”
But the cost of the program has homeless advocates, including Holmes, concerned.
“I’m trying to raise money for a part-time social worker to work in tandem with the police,” he said. “I haven’t been successful yet, but it’s a smart idea. We have units available for people who are chronically homeless, but the social worker part is what’s holding us back.”
The idea is similar to a successful program in Fort Lauderdale, where a social worker patrols with extra-duty police officers.
“It makes sense,” he said. “If you’re going to use the stick approach and issue tickets, then you need to have a carrot that goes along with it. We need to tell people, ‘if you’re of a mood to think about changing your life, we can help you.’ Right now, we have nothing to hold out to the people who need help.”
Holmes said he has met with the BID and Downtown Partnership, but no additional programs have been added to the extra patrols, although he said he continues to hope for more support for social work programs.
Michael Stoops, interim executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, said he wishes he had just a portion of the money that was set aside for the policing program.
“You can move a homeless person into a house, with accompanying social work, for about $12,500 a year,” he said. “For a family, it’s around $20,000 a year. And if you’re spending that on someone at the beginning of their homeless situation, it can break them out of a vicious cycle.”
Stoops said that national studies show a 61 percent success rate if a homeless person is given housing and substance abuse counseling for two years.
“For a family, that success rate is 76 percent,” he said. “I don’t know, maybe I should move to Colorado Springs. For that amount of money, I could get 10 homeless people into permanent housing — probably for less money — and remove the problem permanently.”
Instead of simply issuing tickets, Stoops believes a more productive approach would be providing assistance.
“A streetwise social worker could get the eight people given citations into a better situation for about $10,000,” he said. “That’s what needs to happen.”