Downtown’s vagrant presence has reached such proportions, business owners are digging into their own pockets to hire extra security.
Also, an effort by a cadre of women business owners has led to police placing more emphasis on the problem.
Downtown business owner and investor Kevin O’Neil says he’ll commit $20,000 to hire around-the-clock security to ward off the vagrant population. O’Neil owns the office building at 6 N. Tejon, and there, he said, “we have them sleeping in front of our doors, sleeping in our stairwells. There’s human waste inside our loading bay almost every day.”
Vagrants are costing businesses thousands of dollars a month, owners say. The 7-Eleven at 3 N. Tejon St. loses $55,000 a year to shoplifting, said owner Russ Mallery.
“I think it’s going to take business owners really putting our foot down,” Mallery said.
“It’s just out of control,” said Kathy Guadagnoli, owner of several businesses and real estate at 20-28 N. Tejon St. “Something needs to be done ASAP. It cannot be shelved.”
Guadagnoli was one of 16 women and business owners who met last week to devise a solution. Also attending were Suzi Bach, wife of Mayor Steve Bach; Susan Edmondson, Downtown Partnership CEO; and Aimee Cox of the city’s economic vitality department.
At the meeting, Guadagnoli shared a letter she wrote to the city administration requesting more police downtown to “reduce downtown panhandling and its resultant criminal behavior.”
“We support many local charities” that help the homeless, the letter said. “There is a very fine line between homelessness as a social issue and a criminal issue, and … many kinds of public conduct are illegal, including intoxication, loitering, prowling, fighting, trespassing, aggressive panhandling, solicitation, urinating and defecating,” the letter said.
“It’s just out of control. Something needs to be done ASAP.”
– Kathy Guadagnoli
Guadagnoli, O’Neil and others plan to hire off-duty police officers, security officers and ambassadors, she said, to educate people that their donations should go to an agency helping the homeless, rather than to the person.
“It shouldn’t become a business cost, but we’ve got to do something … if we want it cleaned up and our police force can’t do it,” Mallery said. “The front of my door seems to be a magnet for these homeless.”
Via email, Mallery appealed to Mayor Bach, who responded the next day.
“We talked for about a half-hour,” he said. The following day, police chief Pete Carey called, Mallery said. The plan, Bach told Mallery, is for the city to install wrought-iron features on downtown planters to stop people from sitting on them.
“I will pay for mine outside my building. That’s not that big a deal,” Mallery said.
Bach also told him the police presence will increase, and the police department plans to add two officers to the downtown team and another officer to the Homeless Outreach Team (HOT), “but an official date of implementation has yet to be determined,” said CSPD spokeswoman Barbara Miller. “We are waiting for the new police recruits to be fully trained and out on their own, which should be in two weeks.”
Also, two officers will be moved to conduct traffic enforcement related to pedestrian concerns, Miller added.
Guadagnoli said a white van has been dropping off several panhandlers every day.
“All of a sudden we’re starting to see different faces, more aggressive people,” she said. “They come in the day, stay all day and night until they make their quotas.”
“Like you and I go to a job, they go to a job,” said O’Neil.
Linda Weise, director of the Colorado Springs Conservatory, an after-school music and theater program located in southern downtown, says she’s concerned because many students walk from Palmer High School to the Conservatory. Vagrants sometimes approach people up to four to five times in one block, Weise said, and “you don’t even get that in Manhattan. If it was your daughter (being approached), you’d be concerned.”
Because of the vagrancy, Weise requires students be walked to their cars at night by an adult.
Weise attended the downtown meeting last week, where some women said they were considering moving their businesses.
“It’s sad to hear some of the ladies say they’re considering closing shop,” Weise said.
Mallery said tourists are at risk.
“I’m just waiting for a tourist to get robbed,” Mallery said. “We’ve got tourists who come here who can’t even walk into my store or Starbucks without being bothered.
“We don’t know who’s homeless and who’s out there to cause problems,” Mallery said.
“We’re seeing several business owners waffling on whether or not they’re staying downtown,” O’Neil said.
Some vagrants intimidate customers at Einstein Brothers Bagels, at the corner of Tejon and Kiowa streets, said manager Amy Parham.
“I have a lot of theft because of it,” Parham said. “I’ve been yelled at and screamed at out front with very inappropriate words, just because I caught somebody stealing and wouldn’t let them keep said item.
“It makes me not want to work down here very much longer. I don’t need that,” she said, adding that customers often ask her to walk them outdoors because they’re afraid.
One employee was mugged and beaten while walking to work one day, she said. She added that people lock themselves in the bathroom, presumably doing drugs.
“There was a homeless guy in back shooting heroin, one of my employees saw last week,” Parham said.
One woman urinated in the foyer of Lane Mitchell Jewelers, said co-owner Laura Williams.
“I did call the police for that,” Williams said. “She was mentally unstable.”
Williams said she and her husband are compassionate to the plight of the population, but “when it starts affecting our bottom line, our customers, our business, then we’ve got to do something.”
One panhandler requested money from Williams while she was helping a customer, and the customer ended up giving money.
Many business owners said the problem has become worse than past years.
“I’m noticing more transients in town,” Einstein’s Parham said. When the business opened in December 2011, “we’d see the same faces and kind of get to know who they were. Some of them were cool, polite and respectful, and there’s the other side that aren’t.”
She says summertime is bringing “a lot more unfamiliar faces.”
Williams said the escalating problem affects her bottom line.
“People don’t want to come downtown, but they don’t tell me why,” she said.
“The 7-Eleven seems to attract them,” she said of the vagrants.
“It’s gotten worse in the past year,” said Darrell VanOrmer, manager at Vintages Wine & Spirits, 9 S. Tejon. Police dismantled the homeless village at Fountain Creek, “so now they come downtown,” he said.
VanOrmer walks to work, so “I deal with these people twice a day, seven days a week. … Every day we have to shoo people out from our door front.”
“There’s an issue with homelessness and there’s an issue with vagrancy,” said Aimee Cox, senior economic vitality specialist with the city. “They’re distinct issues. My focus is trying to reduce homelessness downtown.”
“We really need to improve our outreach to the homeless. It’s not simple. Where do you put them?” she asked. “If these people have serious mental health issues, how do we get mental health services to this vulnerable population?”
Meanwhile, O’Neil and Guadagnoli are negotiating with a private security firm, O’Neil said.
“We’re planning to commit at a minimum of $50,000 to have security hired to discourage people from giving directly to the homeless,” O’Neil said. They are appealing to other businesses on Tejon to contribute to the solution.
The solution involves better and more lighting downtown, more cameras, fencing off areas hidden from view and converting trash cans to compactors to keep people from digging in them, O’Neil said.
Also, the group wants to work with the American Civil Liberties Union to “come up with an ordinance they wouldn’t challenge,” O’Neil said of an effort last year to enforce a “no-solicitation zone.”
“Let’s get that [proposed city ordinance] fixed and resubmitted,” O’Neil said.