Colorado Springs City Council passed an ordinance last night that outlawed the camps, and police will begin issuing tickets for people who remain. The vote passed after hours of discussion, with only Councilman Tom Gallagher voting against the measure.
About 300 to 500 people live in the camps along the creek, easily visible from Interstate 25, and within walking distance of downtown businesses.
“These are hard times, and the people are down on their luck,” said Kathy Guadagnoli, owner of Rum Bay, Blondie’s, Gasoline Alley and Cowboys nightclubs, all on Tejon Street. “And if you can get them into shelters, into beds, then that’s a much better solution.”
Business owners say the homeless problem has escalated, with shoppers complaining about over-aggressive panhandling and drunken, disorderly behavior by the homeless.
“You know, some of the people are really in dire straits,” Guadagnoli said. “And they want to be helped, need to be helped. But some of them – a handful – really like the lifestyle. They panhandle, make $250 a day. And they don’t want to change, to get a job.”
Business owners are sympathetic to the plight of people whose economic circumstances leave them without shelter – and they agree that new shelters should be created. But, they say, the problem often means new shoppers won’t come downtown.
“There are great things going on downtown,” said Jerry Rutledge, owner of Rutledge’s, a menswear shop. “In this block alone, we have three new stores. And I love downtown – but the problem is really out of control.”
Rutledge said he recently had to call police after two female shoppers complained about aggressive panhandling.
“I think the ban on the camps is a great idea,” he said. “You have to do something. I just hope they go through with it. There are a few wafflers on city council.”
Marty Taylor, who owns Tayco Screen Printing and Embroidery near the Springs Rescue Mission on Tejon Street, also has mixed feelings about the issue.
“It’s such a volatile situation,” he said. “We will have to wait and see. We’ve been here for 20 years.”
The Springs Rescue Mission doesn’t allow alcohol or drugs inside, and it offers a religious program to people who use the shelter. That, Taylor said, “separated the sheep from the goats.”
He is unsure that the new ban will have any impact on the camps.
“Where will they go, if pressured?” he asked. “I can’t imagine the scene, it’s just dismal.”
He did have a suggestion. At South Nevada Avenue and Las Vegas Street, an abandoned RV camp could serve as temporary camping facilities for the 300 to 500 homeless who currently live along Monument Creek. The facility is away from the busy downtown corridor.
“I am not sure a new shelter would solve the problem,” he said. “I normally speak to them. This fall, I gave 300 shirts and jackets to some of the camp leaders. If I put out the word I’m a good guy, it keeps them from bothering businesses. But a lot of them, they don’t want hard-wall shelters.”
All the business owners say the problem has escalated along with the economic recession, the worst since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
“Downtown has become a bit of a dumping ground,” Taylor said. “No other part of the city bears the load like downtown. Everybody else just lives elsewhere and talks around the problem – they go to church, feel good about themselves. It’s all dumped on downtown’s plate. I bet if all these people were at the Chapel Hills mall, they’d be bounced out a lot sooner.”
Luke Travins, owner of Concept Restaurants, said city council made the right decision.
“I think there are enough shelters, beds, transitional housing and general resources to take on this burden,” he said. “There are a lot of people helping folks get back into a housed situation.”
Travins echoed other business owners: aggressive panhandling keeps people out of his restaurants – Jose Muldoon’s, the Ritz and MacKenzie’s Chop House – at night. And, he said, people have told him the problem is worse because of bans on camping in Denver and Boulder.
“We’ve become an attraction,” he said. “People come here because we haven’t enforced the no-camping ban. When they started enforcing it in Boulder, people put up signs saying they could come to Colorado Springs, camp and be within a five minute walk of a soup kitchen.”
Becky Hurley contributed to this story.