Business owners and residents met early Tuesday to discuss the growing prevalence of panhandling in downtown Durango’s business corridor and vote on proposed solutions at a town hall, hosted by the Durango Business Improvement District (BID), Durango Chamber of Commerce and Local First at the Durango Public Library (DPL).
Panhandling Town Hall
The April 25 town hall maintained a largely supportive and compassionate tone as it provided background information about the perceived problem with panhandling, current ordinance against aggressive panhandling and ideas to address the issue, both currently actionable and proposed for future action.
All speakers were unwavering that their position wasn’t against homelessness or the people in need and moderated the discussion in such a way as to avoid letting things go down that path.
“We’re not against the homeless, I think it’s super important to say that,” Tim Walsworth, executive director of the BID, said. “What are we against? We’re against people who impact our ability to run good businesses, we’re against people whose behavior scares away customers, we’re against people who litter, we’re against people who illegally use drugs and alcohol on our streets.”
He went on to ask that people avoid painting homelessness with a broad stroke, based upon the select individuals who cause problems downtown.
“Panhandlers and homeless are not the same group of people, and our service providers will tell you that many of the problem panhandlers downtown, they’re not serving them with their programs,” Walsworth said. “It’s not that they don’t deserve second chances, but at some point enough is enough for behavior downtown.”
Jack Llewellyn, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce, added that, while everyone has experiences with panhandlers downtown, the goal of the town hall was to discuss solutions rather than get caught up in the stories.
These sentiments were echoed by Monique DiGiorgio, managing director of Local First.
Panhandling--the act of begging strangers for money or food publically--saw a notable increase in 2015, according to Walsworth.
“It’s surpassed complaints about parking, if you can believe that,” Walsworth said. “Two ‘p’ words, right? Parking and panhandling, so it really blew up in 2015 and expanded, as we saw, last year, and we all know we’re feeling the impacts of it in downtown right now.”
In Oct., 2014, the city of Durango ended its enforcement of a loitering ordinance that enabled police to act upon idle or otherwise indolent individuals in public spaces after the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado (ACLU) contested its constitutionality.
The ACLU takes the position that panhandling and related activities are protected as free speech.
In 2015 a new ordinance was put into place against aggressive panhandling to replace the loitering ordinance. Aggressive panhandling is defined in the ordinance as:
Any form of Panhandling that includes any of the following activities:
- Knowingly touching or causing physical contact with another person without that person’s consent during the course of Panhandling.
- Using violent, threatening, intimidating, coercive or aggressive gestures or conduct toward a person during the course of Panhandling or in response to a refusal by any person to give money.
- Using fighting words or directing violent or obscene verbal or written language toward any person during the course of Panhandling or in response to a refusal by any persona to give money.
- Taking any action that obstructs or blocks a public sidewalk, doorway, entryway or other passage way [sic] used by pedestrians in a Public Place or that obstructs the passage or the travel of any person during the course of Panhandling in a manner that requires them to take evasive action to avoid physical contact with any person.
Unless it demonstrates any of the above traits, panhandling and busking is considered completely legal and protected under the First Amendment.
In response to this, BID started the Make It Count campaign to urge the community to donate their cash and change to charities, via Make It Count donation boxes, rather than giving it directly to panhandlers and encouraging their presence downtown.
The three issues tied to panhandling downtown are litter, presence of drugs and alcohol, and impact to businesses, Walsworth said.
The town hall flyer, which was distributed early April, specifically requested the attendance and participation of local business owners and store managers. Turnout for the town hall was indicative of the business community’s concern about panhandling downtown.
Walsworth introduced nine new ideas for addressing panhandling during the course of the town hall. These nine items are listed below as they appeared on the town hall handout but include key points written by the reporter based on Walsworth’s commentary.
Walsworth's Presentation of Ideas
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Listen to Walsworth's Presentation of Ideas
Solutions Go to Vote
Additional ideas were solicited from the individuals in attendance, many of which were added for voting. These ideas included solutions like:
- Increasing the no-smoking radius to 50 feet around doorways
- Create a licensing requirement for buskers
- Working towards more shelter and housing options
- Setting up a legal camp for the homeless
- Organizing a neighborhood watch downtown
- Informing visitors in hotels and airports about panhandling
- Asking panhandlers to leave in return for shower vouchers
- Get volunteers to sit next to panhandlers with signs that discourage donations
- Create a phone app for Make it Count
- Change the Make it Count campaign name to be more direct (i.e. Don’t Give to Panhandlers)
- Collaborate with other communities to challenge the ACLU ruling against regulating panhandling
- Running a campaign to hire panhandlers and get them off the street
According to Walsworth, at one point there was a consideration to lease the sidewalk to the corresponding business owners, turning the sidewalk into private property consequently making loitering illegal as trespassing. This, however, was not deemed feasible, he said.
Panhandling also cannot be regulated as a business, thus requiring individuals to acquire a license as a solution, he said.
After solution ideas were presented, attendees were encouraged to walk around the room and vote on their favorite solutions. Eight stickers were allocated to each person, who could then distribute them however they liked to the various ideas posted around the room.
While intended primarily for business owners and store managers, you are welcome to fill out a BID survey here to weigh in on ideas as well.
Solutions with the most votes will then be slotted for pursuit by the BID, the Chamber, Local First, and the city as appropriate. Walsworth indicated that it would take some time to compile results from the town hall and survey, but that he will be announcing the next steps through the BID newsletter when they have been identified.
In addition to seeking new creative solutions to panhandling concerns downtown, the town hall also provided an opportunity for the hosts to share current guidelines and actions that can be taken to curb aggressive panhandling.
Anyone can report aggressive panhandling to the police non-emergency dispatch number, and people are encouraged to film or take pictures of aggressive panhandling infractions on their phones and devices, Llewellyn said.
It is important that, if you witness a violation, you work with police upon arrival and see things through to court if it warrants a case, he said.
The police non-emergency dispatch number is 970.385.2900
Business owners can take additional action by displaying Make It Count information and providing donation boxes for that campaign. They can also apply for bistro tables or flower boxes and take other action to make their storefronts less comfortable or accessible for panhandlers.
Ultimately, success will come from implementing multiple solutions, some of which may aim to curb the ability for panhandlers to loiter downtown while others hope to provide that community with resources that get them back on their feet.
During the course of the town hall, it was suggested that a woman in attendance share her experiences as a previous panhandler. While time didn’t allow her to take the podium, Walsworth said that he plans to set up an opportunity for the community to hear and learn directly from people with experience as panhandlers to help round out the conversation and give voice to the population in question.
Local Resources for Those in Need: