City parks must be made safe for families and children

By Amy Lentz

Since Jan. 1, 2009, the Grand Junction Police Department has answered nearly 300 calls for service to Hawthorne Park — almost solely in response to transient issues. On May 21 of this year, six calls were made in the same day.

I live downtown and have small children who have been asking to play at the park on a daily basis. Due to the influx of intoxicated transients in this area and the harassment I have personally undergone from them, I no longer feel safe to take my children to Hawthorne Park.

Recent coverage of the homeless debate locally has been missing a frank discussion about the impact this transient population is having on the daily lives of ordinary mothers and children, who no longer feel safe playing in our city parks, walking or running on our river trails or even taking out the trash in our driveways and back alleys in downtown neighborhoods.

One important clarification is this: I have a heart for the homeless — and by “homeless,” I mean those who are experiencing hard times and genuinely need a helping hand. Families who have lost jobs, have little or no money and are forced to live in vehicles, shelters or worse are not a part of this discussion. Those people desperately need and desire our help. Should this community come to their assistance? Most would agree the answer is a resounding “Yes.”

What I am referring to — and the basis for my strong concerns — is a different population: able-bodied people who refuse to follow societal rules and are using our parks and public areas as their personal living spaces.

According to the federal Health and Human Services administration, 66 percent of transients have mental health and/or substance abuse problems, and 54 percent have been incarcerated at some point. The largest demographic is single, middle-aged men.

Anecdotally, my friends and I have seen the erratic, intoxicated and even violent outbursts displayed by transients in our neighborhood. While these facts are regrettable and tragic, they also create a very justified fear among stroller-pushing mothers, wondering whether or not the transients in the park pose a danger to us and our children.

More specifically, if you have recently visited Whitman Park, Hawthorne Park or Sherwood Park (and the list goes on), you can expect a half dozen or more transients using our parks as their personal living rooms at any given time. Drive by Emerson Park and you’ll see beautiful playground equipment — but likely no children playing on it. If you live downtown, you can expect to see transients rummaging through your trash cans, even sleeping on your sidewalk. Aggressive panhandling has become the norm at major intersections in town.

And we are supposed to feel safe bringing our children to the park for a picnic? Are we to believe that building relationships with transients somehow keeps our families safe in these public places?

The problems associated with this issue are complex and intertwined, to be sure, and I want to be fair in my criticism. Policymakers and public officials must balance the cost-effectiveness and outcomes of substance-abuse services, mental-health services, law enforcement and jail services and transitional shelter services, to name but a few.

Moving forward, however, there needs to be a more prominent role in this discussion for those of us who are law-abiding taxpayers trying to raise our families without fear of frequenting our parks and trails or walking our own neighborhoods.

City and county officials ought to balance the policies dealing with our transient population with the very real concerns of those of us who simply want to feel safe jogging the river trail, or having lunch in the park with our children.

The Grand Valley is a compassionate community, as evidenced by our non-profits, service providers and faith-based organizations. However, asking police officers to act as social workers is a bridge too far. Our community’s benevolence toward the downtrodden must be accompanied by enough common sense to know that ceding our parks and trails to transients may be the path of least resistance — but it has negative long-term consequences.

With all of this in mind, what’s a mom to do? I have heard from countless concerned citizens all over the valley who share this desire to stand up and bring a sense of safety and community back to every park in our valley. The city is now hearing the other side of this issue and the time is right for our voices to be heard.

A group of us are organizing people from every neighborhood and walk of life to join in a movement called Reclaim Grand Junction. If you share our concerns and want to learn more, go to http://www.reclaimgrandjunction.com.

It is time to take back our parks and public spaces. After all, we should feel safe in our community and our children deserve at least as much compassion as our transients.

Amy Lentz is a mother of two small children. She and her husband have lived downtown near Hawthorne Park for the past five years. She grew up in Grand Junction and attended Grand Junction High School. She is a graduate of Colorado State University.


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