Springs must avoid falling victim to panhandlers

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Growing up in New York, I learned early in life how to get along in a city where street life is active and diverse. A primary element of learning street smarts was knowing which areas to avoid. Now, as an adult and business owner, I am dismayed to see this lesson being learned in my adopted hometown.

Tourists and past customers have been avoiding Colorado Springs’ downtown and its connection with harassment and violence, in an effort to resist “falling victim” to the active and passive machinations of panhandlers and other street-dwellers. The new ordinance outlawing panhandling in the city’s core is one of many tools being employed by public/private partnerships to refresh downtown. Merchants actively support the panhandling ordinance in response to our customers’ continued insistence that positive changes are imperative for their safety and peace of mind.

Cities as large, diverse, and populous as NYC are fated to have areas where fringe populations gather and law enforcement is scant. However, cities of all sizes must be vigilant in creating and maintaining a welcoming, positive perception for their core economic areas and tourist destinations. Even before NYC Mayor Rudolph Giuliani successfully improved the city’s overall image, primary tourist and commerce destinations were kept free from the unwanted presence of aggressive panhandlers.

Colorado Springs must recognize that locals and tourists alike want and need to frequent our downtown economic zone, but ongoing harassment by panhandlers, street people, and loiterers is “turning away” visitors. Although some local editorialists have suggested it, parking is not downtown’s main problem.

Some argue that disallowing panhandling would put more burden on our local homeless population by taking away a valuable source of “income.” However, panhandling stems not from the true homeless; the culprits are a cast of 30-50 “professional panhandlers” who carry cell phones, travel by cab or car and live a tax-free, cash-based existence working the streets and then drinking and loitering in Acacia or Monument Valley parks. (Research substantiates that panhandlers use their “earnings” to purchase narcotics and alcohol and further their addictions.)

What makes these operators such a nuisance? They follow you to your car, say inappropriate and profane things and prey on women walking alone. “They” is the female panhandler who approached someone I know last month and requested $3 for a Starbucks coffee, calling her victim a “b—-” when she declined. The word “victim” is appropriate; that is how these interactions make one feel. No one should have to feel like a victim walking downtown or anywhere in our city. The panhandling ordinance would make such unwanted interaction illegal.

For those who feel downtown is unworthy of assuming the “core” role in Colorado Springs, consider what operates downtown: city and county government, the Olympic Committee, banking and financial concentration, locally owned retail and restaurants, and two conference hotels. Frequent users of downtown include the thousands of students at Colorado College, Palmer High School and the Conservatory, attendees of parades and special events, as well as the state’s largest running club. All deserve to feel safe and confident while enjoying the city’s culture and recreation.

Panhandling is one of many downtown issues. Nightclub-related violence, drug use in Acacia Park, vehicle break-ins, and even muggings have tarnished our image. All are being addressed by merchants, government, police, business associations and nonprofits. Alcohol-related, after-dark incidents were at a five-year low last summer due to collaboration between police and liquor licensees. Police officers on foot and bicycles patrol alleys and parks, while nonprofits like Homeward Pikes Peak have helped police identify and rectify homeless camps popping up on rooftops and in the nooks and crannies off Tejon.

ID scanners have helped nightclub operators identify problem patrons and network that information to CSPD and other establishments. These issues hurt revenues downtown, but the damage is not confined to local spending patterns. Tourists and corporate conferences choose destinations for a variety of reasons, and our central business district historically has been a selling point. When I hear downtown hoteliers complain that they lost a bid for a conference, it’s time for change. It’s time to “take back the streets.” Out-of-town funds are being plucked from our pockets through lost tax revenues and unspent tourist dollars.

This panhandling ordinance was crafted after researching other communities with similar needs and concerns, and this legislation has survived numerous court challenges. If ACLU-friendly enclaves like Boulder and Manitou Springs can enact and support these laws, why can’t Colorado Springs? I ask you to give it a chance, and come experience the new, improved downtown in 2013.

Luke Travins, who has two decades of restaurant and business experience in downtown and surrounding areas, is president of New Concept Enterprises and co-owner of the Concept Restaurants chain.