Time for change, city says

Spread of panhandling has officials mulling new ordinance

Mark Deckard and a woman who didn’t want to be identified panhandle for donations at the corner of Ninth Street and Ute Avenue in downtown Grand Junction. Grand Junction officials are discussing a panhandling ordinance that would pass legal muster without violating anyone’s First Amendment right to free speech.

The man who recently entered Megan Reinertsen’s store asking if he could wash windows or vacuum made her uncomfortable.

The owner of Colorado Baby, 560 Main St., said a man who looked to be in his 30s asked if he could help out in some way — something to make a couple bucks.

She didn’t need any help and told him so. His change of tone rattled her.

“Really?!” the man replied accusingly, according to Reinertsen.

The man left and stopped some people walking by who appeared to be tourists.

Reinertsen listened to him repeat the story he told her of why he was down on his luck and needed a handout.

“I felt so sorry for them. It looked like they wanted to get away, but they were trying to be polite,” she said.

City considers options

Reports like these of increasingly aggressive panhandling tactics on Grand Junction’s Main Street is worrying city officials enough to do something about it.

Grand Junction long has struggled with panhandling issues as people stand on street corners around the city, holding up cardboard signs scrawled with any number of reasons of why they need cash.

Panhandlers, though, historically have steered clear of Main Street. When officials started fielding reports in the past couple months of panhandlers becoming angry after being rebuffed or panhandlers asking diners for money as they sat on outdoor restaurant patios, they began to look at their options. Main Street, the city’s gem with plenty of merchants, water fountains and public art that has undergone millions of dollars in renovations in recent years, always ranks among the top three tourist destinations in the Grand Valley.

Yet the city is treading carefully while thinking about how to craft a panhandling ordinance, as a number of other municipalities have been legally challenged on the issue. Colorado Springs was sued in federal court last November by the American Civil Liberties Union after it approved an ordinance against panhandling in a 12-block area of its downtown. City officials there also believed that aggressive panhandling in their downtown core was becoming too prevalent and could impede tourism and economic development. The ACLU contended the city’s panhandling ban was too broad and stifled free speech. In March, Colorado Springs decided to repeal its no-solicitation ban.

“It was a tremendous overreach to try to forbid any and all solicitation in a huge 12-city block downtown area,” the ACLU wrote on its website. “The City was unable to cite a single case in which a court had upheld such a breathtakingly broad restriction of speech.”

Grand Junction officials have been watching the outcomes of panhandling ordinances in other cities before jumping in.

“We’re looking pretty seriously at a panhandling ordinance that is constitutional and enforceable,” City Attorney John Shaver said at a recent meeting. “You just have to be so careful how you do this. The nature of the threat (of a lawsuit) is great.”

Passing an outright ban on panhandling most certainly would be challenged because it bumps up against First Amendment rights of free speech, city officials warn. A comprehensive ban against panhandling means no one could ask for cash — not street musicians, people selling newspapers or even the bell ringers for The Salvation Army at Christmas. Grand Junction city councilors considered, but ultimately abandoned, a plan to prohibit all panhandling in 2009.

This time around, the city is looking to more strategically craft an ordinance that limits panhandling. It may include banning panhandling around financial institutions and banning the practice at certain times during the day, Shaver said.

While city officials have learned that writing tickets and jailing homeless individuals and panhandlers does little to settle the problem, having some sort of enforcement would be helpful, Police Chief John Camper said at a meeting to address the issue.

“I’m still in favor of an ordinance, even if we find that we didn’t write a lot of tickets,” Camper said. “Just the threat of it is helpful.”

Shaver said Grand Junction might do well to fashion an ordinance similar to one passed late last year in unincorporated areas of Larimer County. Commissioners of the Front Range county authorized an ordinance that bans panhandling along roadways and in medians. Panhandling is not allowed after dark. Asking for handouts is allowed on public sidewalks but panhandlers cannot obstruct people from passing by or repeatedly ask for donations after being denied. Panhandling is not allowed within 100 feet of a bank teller machine or school grounds, near a bus stop, on a public bus or in any parking facility. Panhandlers cannot solicit people who are entering or exiting businesses, parked cars and restaurants. Violating the ordinance can result in fines of up to $1,000.

Activities such as the bell ringing campaigns that raise money for The Salvation Army are allowed under Larimer County’s ordinance, Larimer County commissioners have told the charity.


Mixed results in past efforts

While not directly related to panhandling, Grand Junction has had some success in dealing with homeless and vagrant issues by setting down some rules.

The city took action two years ago after neighbors in the area of Hawthorne Park and a group of mothers protested that they didn’t feel safe in the park. The city banned alcohol at the park and limited the hours during which people could be there.

Adopting those regulations gave police some enforcement options to work with, City Councilor Bennett Boeschenstein said.

“It almost was completely a homeless park and you fixed it,” Boeschenstein told local police officers.

Boeschenstein said he, too, has been frustrated by panhandling on Main Street when someone asked him for money recently while he was dining on the patio of Nepal Restaurant, 356 Main St.

“The owners said, ‘What should I do?’ I told them to call 911,” Boeschenstein said. “They did and officers responded.”

A campaign launched a few years ago to limit panhandling with signs near medians that read “Giving spare change won’t make a change” seems to have little effect on deterring panhandling, Camper said.

Panhandlers often stand near the signs anyway, collecting money from motorists.

“I think the message has gotten stale,” he said.

Homeless Outreach Team officer Cindy Cohn said there are an estimated 100 to 150 visibly homeless people in Grand Junction, while the total number of homeless people here is pegged somewhere between 750 and 800. Of course, not all homeless people are panhandling and not all panhandlers are homeless.

The Grand Junction Police Department’s Homeless Outreach Team has had success in reducing the number of homeless-related calls for service since the team was dedicated to addressing homeless issues in 2011. A number of people have been sent to drug and alcohol treatment, are now living with family members or are getting help through case management.

Giving money to panhandlers does not help solve homelessness, city officials said. If people wouldn’t give money to panhandlers, it wouldn’t be profitable and panhandlers would stop doing it, Camper said.

“It does go toward drugs and alcohol,” Cohn said. “I tell people to give it to service providers.”


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