Vagrants incite business owners

Laura Montgomery Williams, co-owner of Lane Mitchell Jewelry, took this photo from the second story of her office building at 102 E. Pikes Peak Ave. She and other downtown business owners say the vagrant presence affects their bottom line.

Laura Montgomery Williams, co-owner of Lane Mitchell Jewelry, took this photo from the second story of her office building at 102 E. Pikes Peak Ave. She and other downtown business owners say the vagrant presence affects their bottom line.

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.

Unusual observation

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.

Other troubles

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.

Recent escalation

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.”

Possible solutions

“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.

 

15 Responses to Vagrants incite business owners

  1. The solution is simple: increase police presence in the downtown core and provide public restrooms in Acacia Park. Make inmates at the County Jail clean and service the restrooms as a condition of their release. But, above all else, Mayor Bach should direct his Chief to take the steps necessary to expunge these undesirables from our downtown center.

    Mike Hunt
    August 9, 2013 at 11:23 am

  2. …1st off i want to say to Mike Hunt your response was i think by far the best response i have read in regards to this issue, good to read a positive plan of action. I work downtown and often walk around the area taking little breaks in my day just to be outside. I think the first sign of the homeless issue was this year when the farmers market didnt show up. I really do hope that something can be done to help the downtown businesses as well as get the resources needed to keep things under control. I pray a resolution can be done…i really would hate to see another business shutter its doors.

    Chaun Perkins
    August 9, 2013 at 12:41 pm

  3. Why in the world would the business owners have to foot the bill for private security? The Colorado Springs mayor, city council and police chief could solve this in one afternoon, even today if they really wanted to.

    I’ve lived in the Springs for 20 years and downtown is now unfriendly and costly. With $20 parking meter tickets, and vagrants approaching you every few seconds, I NEVER choose downtown as a destination, and certainly keep my kids away from there as well.

    Colorado Springs elected authorities need to get a backbone and enforce loitering and public nuisance laws – it’s common sense, but that’s never been present much in the Springs.

    Vince Cluxton
    August 9, 2013 at 12:51 pm

  4. one solution which would not cost anything would be to have posters all over the city which state the cost of panhandling and alternatives (donate it to non profits) combine this with Home less meters (for donation i/o giving money to the panhandlers)

    what would be achieved?
    no money given to pan handlers would reduce the numbers drastically as there is no more financial incentive for them and we would raise money for nonprofits to really help them.

    how to finance?
    pay for the posters and the homeless meters with the money raised and give the surplus to the non profits..

    peter miller
    August 9, 2013 at 1:46 pm

  5. I work downtown at 6 N. Tejon and j-walk from my parking lot to the front of my building rather than take the light by the 7-eleven because of the vagrants out there every day. I have had foul and horrible things said to me that left me shaken. Every morning when I walk to Starbucks, I get asked for money by at least 3 different people. It’s gotten to the point where I feel so unsafe, I have looked into applying for my conceal and carry. Something needs to be done.

    Alicia
    August 9, 2013 at 2:26 pm

  6. Downtown has become a place I do not go anymore, it was not always that way. Also, living by Templeton Gap and North Watsatch there are 2 parks in this area vagrants like to hang out in as well. Not uncommon to see children playing and a bum with a shopping cart sleeping in the grass 100 feet away. They are all over…good thing Winter is on its way and they will crawl back into the holes they came out of.

    Colorado Springs Native
    August 9, 2013 at 4:36 pm

  7. There is a white van dropping these vagrants off? Really? OK. I would like the police to find out who that is…and stop it accordingly. This suggests someone is consciously wanting to increase vagrancy downtown….and that suggests someone with an agenda.

    Stan VanderWerf
    August 9, 2013 at 9:12 pm

  8. What strikes me in that picture is that those people all look like young people. Why don’t they have a job? Every fast food restaurant in town is hiring. One of them looks like he has a laptop, one is reading a book. What am I missing here? The Springs Rescue Mission, the Marion House, the Salvation Army, the Red Cross, Catholic Charities…they are all there to help these people.

    Janet
    August 10, 2013 at 1:02 am

  9. Homelessness is an issue connected with poverty. The number of people living in poverty in this country has gone up over the last five years. This is directly attributable to greedy practices of Wall Street and predatory lending of large banks, some of whom have offices in downtown. Yet I hear the poor being blamed for their poverty. I hear that people associate being poor with being a failure, that you must have done something wrong. I hear poverty equated with being a criminal. Police and private security, wrought-iron fences and trash compactors act as guards and barricades and resource denial as though we were at war. My judgment is that this is adding insult to injury, kicking people while they are down.
    Why are there so many of the mentally ill on the street? Because we choose not to share the cost of caring for our most vulnerable neighbors. Instead we are increasingly criminalizing poverty and mental illness and putting these people in prison. We can choose this path. it will cost us not only money, but something much more precious.
    There are alternatives. Summer youth employment programs in major cities have helped reduce vagrancy and crime. Drug treatment programs are more effective and cheaper at reducing recidivism than incarceration. Engaging with these groups of people and seeing what their challenges and problems are to see if they can be empowered to make changes, but would anyone dare?

    Ben Miller
    August 10, 2013 at 12:49 pm

  10. As a business owner, I empathize with problems that cause customers to bypass a business that has worked hard to earn their loyalty. As a human being, though, I feel pain from the comments that suggest it’s “us and THEM.” There but for the grace of God go we. Homelessness is a social problem, and it’s time for us as a society to stop shutting our eyes to the problem of homelessness in this city. When mental health facilities were closed down years ago, what did they think would happen to the people who lived there? When the government closed the homeless camp, where did they think people would go? When the city stopped allowing people to sleep in their cars overnight, where did they think people would sleep? More security might help the problem for each individual business, but the problem will just shift to businesses that cannot afford the security costs. If we were, though, to “spread the cost of a solution throughout the population,” then perhaps we could afford to create jobs that would end the homelessness problem overall. As for those homeless individuals who are dealing with mental health and/or drug issues, some of the solution would need to fund facilities and programs to help these individuals. Maybe, as a short-term solution, the city could work something out with the owner of a large, vacant retail space. A team of volunteers (maybe working with Habitat for Humanity) could construct cubicles and a food area within the space. There would probably already be a large bathroom area, and it could be enlarged to accommodate showers. Food left over from restaurants and supermarkets could be delivered there each day, and a few phones could be put in so people could get calls about work. Instead of trying to push the homeless out of our sight–and out of our mind–let’s try working together as a community to come up with a reasonable solution that will empower people to improve their lives. That’s the way we can improve our city…for all.

    Wendy S.
    August 10, 2013 at 12:52 pm

  11. These are the folks who can’t find jobs or homes because they can’t pass the background, credit, drug, certification and security tests the business and corporate community demands of American workers. Less than honorable corporate thieves are making life miserable for American workers with less than squeaky clean job and life records. As long as you allow insurance companies, security companies, the healthcare industry and law enforcement tell you how to run your business you are contributing to the unemployment and homeless problem in the nation and in our community. And then these people need to be right in your face. Benjamin Frankly stated, “Those Who Sacrifice Liberty For Security Deserve Neither.”

    Steven Shepard
    August 11, 2013 at 4:32 pm

  12. Let’s turn the tables. Instead of ticketing panhandlers let’s ticket those giving money. When that dollar turns ino a $25.00 fine maybe people won’t feel so generous anymore. Or have jars for donations that go to homeless causes inside the store. The non-profits that are providing a help wll get the money and people might not feel the need to give to an individual since they already gave inside. Just a couple of ideas.

    Liz
    August 11, 2013 at 7:45 pm

  13. A note about the poll. I voted for more police downtown, but that really is not the answer. We need more police EVERYWHERE in this town. I looked this up just the other day, the murder rate in the US is 4.8 murders per 100,000 people. In C-Springs in 2011 the murder rate was 6.1 per 100,000. At the rate we are going this year it will be 9.5 per 100,000. That will be over 50% higher that the national rate. The police force in this town is simply too small.
    When I moved here in 1977 ( my bumper sticker sez “Semi Native” ) we had about 250,000 people, and the police force had about 600 officers. Today we have, I think, about 400,00 people and the police department has about 600 officers. Anybody see a problem there.

    Chris Lukens
    August 13, 2013 at 1:34 pm

  14. These are some very good statements and concrete action steps. The fact is the homeless population has three distinct facets–those that have lost jobs and want a hand-up not a hand-out. This is where nonprofits can do the most good. This is where we also need the focus of our businesses and officials to create local jobs for them. Secondly, there are those who are mentally ill. They need to get the care they need in treatment because they are most likely not able to hold jobs. However, the primary issue is the third faction–the transient population. These are people not unlike the hobos of the depression that go town to town aggressively panhandling, doing/selling drugs, etc. What do we have here in COS that attracts this segment–a river right next to a place for them to stay, walk a few blocks and you can get meals, clothes, etc. This is the group that needs to find COS “unfriendly” to them being here. This might be good for one of the downtown or Mayor’s team to mind map. Finally, I think the laws we already have on the books are good–loitering, etc. However, is being sent to a warm bed with three meals a day while in jail, really fixing the problem? Certainly increasing the presence of a larger HOTS police team patrolling downtown on bikes, segways or even horses, could be a consideration.

    Vikki Walton
    August 14, 2013 at 11:24 am

  15. I am the Founder of The Homeless Foundation. I find it interesting that with our rising homeless rates we are now calling them vagrants because they have no where else to go.

    We only have one shelter that houses 200 individuals with no exist strategy. We have 4,000 homeless. The city responded and made being a tent city illegal this only compounded the problem. Now they are hanging out on public downtown streets with no other refuge. The homeless count is going to continue to rise.

    The solution is for our entire community to begin a proactive stand for positive resolution for adequate shelter, resources, and life and job skills and opportunities. That’s what our Foundation is providing funding for in the right direction.

    Pamela Weir Founder / Chair
    The Homeless Foundation

    Pamela Weir
    August 14, 2013 at 3:45 pm