Let’s get our terminology right

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Those of us who work in downtown Colorado Springs know what it’s like to walk the streets on a typical day, especially around most corners on Tejon.

We see a lot of less-fortunate folks, most of whom have nowhere else to go. So they sit wherever they can find an available space, on ledges of flower beds or even down on the sidewalk.

Many don’t bother trying to make eye contact, and those who do usually won’t say much more than something like, “Got any change?”

To many downtowners who have no choice, dealing with those people hanging around intersections has little effect on us. But to shoppers, restaurant patrons or parents with kids in tow, the feeling is different.

We need to watch our words in defining this downtown problem.

Several times in recent years, city leaders have tried to do something about what they’ve seen as a rising problem — in particular, aggressive panhandlers. Meanwhile, activists have fought to defend the rights of those who choose to spend their time downtown, as long as they aren’t breaking laws.

Talk to anyone involved with downtown, and they’ll tell you the summer months are naturally worse. But in the past month or so, as we’re hearing from a growing number of downtown business and civic leaders (see story, “Vagrants incite business owners,” starting on page 1), the situation suddenly began deteriorating further.

One group of business owners, along with the Downtown Partnership, reached out to city government. And as Downtown Partnership CEO Susan Edmondson puts it, “The city has been listening. They realize there was a quick ramp-up. They’re taking this very seriously now.”

So what’s the answer? Simple. It starts with more police walking the streets and focusing on problem intersections, such as Pikes Peak Avenue and Tejon Street. From what we hear, foot-patrols have increased noticeably in the past few weeks.

Edmondson’s organization is pursuing other, less obvious tactics, such as moving benches from street corners to other locations, such as outside restaurants where people might be waiting. Another approach might be different kinds of landscaping in flower beds, making them less appealing (such as rose bushes) to someone wanting to crash or take a nap.

One other aspect of this discussion cannot be ignored. Edmondson feels strongly, and we fully agree, that we all need to watch our words and terminology in defining this problem. Specifically, let’s avoid overusing the words “homeless” and “panhandling” — because, in all honesty, that’s neither certain nor, perhaps, correct.

The real issue is vagrancy, and more specifically, loitering. It’s about people and/or groups hanging out on sidewalks, shoplifting from the 7-Eleven at Pikes Peak and Tejon or other stores, and effectively scaring off those residents who have gone from regular downtown visits to occasional or never. It’s also about trying to divert those vagrants toward assistance or mental-health treatment.

That’s why the short-term idea of business owners hiring off-duty police to supplement on-duty patrols could make a difference. We’re not talking about masses of hardened criminals. We’re talking about regulars on the streets, and if they could be deterred, downtown Colorado Springs would become a more appealing place. Very quickly.