Legal challenges add twist to panhandling concerns
Stepped-up constitutional challenges to panhandling laws in Colorado, including a new federal court ruling this week, add yet another topic to the conversation as Glenwood Springs gets set to discuss the multitude of issues related to the city’s growing homeless population.
On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Christine Arguello issued a decision striking down Grand Junction’s panhandling ordinance as it relates to soliciting in public places, such as parks and along city streets and sidewalks.
The ruling has ramifications in cities and towns across the state that have similar laws, according to Mark Silverstein, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado.
“The reasoning of this decision, along with Supreme Court rulings earlier this summer, signify that almost every panhandling ordinance in Colorado must be repealed or seriously amended,” he said in a statement issued after Wednesday’s court ruling.
Also this week, as a result of pressure from the ACLU, the city of Colorado Springs ordered its police to stop enforcing that city’s panhandling ordinance related to solicitation “on or near a street or highway.”
Glenwood Springs city officials are well aware of the latest legal developments and how they might impact the city’s own ordinance related to unlawful solicitation.
In addition to prohibiting aggressive panhandling, which probably cannot be challenged, Glenwood does not allow panhandling on the public right of way within 100 feet of a street intersection, or within 15 feet of entrances to banks, automated teller machines or check-cashing businesses.
City Attorney Karl Hanlon said he has been monitoring the various challenges and rulings, including the far-reaching June Supreme Court decision in Reed vs. Town of Gilbert (Arizona) regarding free speech as it applies to panhandling.
“This area of jurisprudence is rapidly evolving and rulings such as the one in the Grand Junction case, while not binding on Glenwood, provide guidance on how to implement the Reed decision,” Hanlon said.
The latest developments on the legal front are relevant to an upcoming discussion in Glenwood Springs about homeless issues and concerns about vagrancy, panhandling and an influx of new transient homeless.
To address the issue, City Council agreed to sponsor a community discussion, which is set to take place from 6 to 8 p.m. Monday at the Glenwood Springs Community Center.
It invites human service and health-care providers, business owners, law enforcement, elected officials and the general public to share information and facts about the larger issue of homelessness.
“The goal is to try to get an understanding of the issues that face our homeless population and the effect they are having on Glenwood Springs,” said City Councilor Kathryn Trauger, who organized the forum on behalf of the city with the ad hoc Partners 4 Glenwood Springs group.
“We really don’t want this to turn into a complaint session,” she added. “We want it to be informational so that people can begin to understand what the problem is.”
Panelists will include Mary Baydarian, director of the Garfield County Department of Human Services; Karen Peppers, director of the Feed My Sheep Ministry; Kim Loving, director of Lift-Up; Jackie Skramstrad of Mindsprings mental health; Dr. Al Saliman of Valley View Hospital; Glenwood Springs Police Chief Terry Wilson; Marianne Virgili, director of the Glenwood Springs Chamber Resort Association; and Kim Willis, representing the Glenwood Hot Springs Pool.
Other organizations and groups that have been addressing the issue are also being invited to participate, and Clark Anderson from the Sonoran Institute will facilitate the discussion.
One group that has been meeting for the past year and a half to explore regional solutions to homelessness goes by the name Shining Mountains Citizens.
“I would like to see all of the stakeholders sit down and talk about the impacts these issues are having not only on our community, but the whole valley,” said Rachael Windh, who co-founded the group.
She hopes something positive will come out of Monday’s discussion, but she and others who have been part of that particular group’s efforts say it can’t stop with a single meeting.
“I hope this is the beginning of a series of meetings, and out of that maybe we come away with a clearer picture and start to come up with some solutions,” said Jean Huyser, who has been involved with numerous human service agencies locally over the years.
“I really think we have to figure out a way for each of these agencies to work more collaboratively,” she said.
It’s also as much a regional issue as it is Glenwood Springs’ issue, said Dawn Dexter, who has also been part of the Shining Mountains talks.
She takes a “housing first” approach, making the case that the Roaring Fork Valley, not just Glenwood Springs, needs more shelter options for the homeless.
“If I were homeless and I had a choice between sleeping on the floor with 50 other people, or under a tree, I would also choose the tree,” Dexter said, sympathizing with those who choose to camp on the hillsides above Glenwood Springs.
Feed My Sheep runs a wintertime shelter out of the Church of Christ in West Glenwood, in addition to its year-round day center services in the Catholic Charities building downtown.
“When we first started, our goal was to get a full-time shelter up and running,” Feed My Sheep Director Peppers said. “But when you look at other cities that have shelters, it does tend to bring in more homeless.”
Feed My Sheep, which started after a local homeless man froze to death one winter, narrowed its focus to provide shelter services during the colder months when those who are homeless are most vulnerable.
Peppers said the number of homeless people in the area is increasing, regardless of the reason or whether they have local ties or not.
“I would like to talk about how our homeless community has changed in recent years,” she said of the Monday discussion. “And I also want to explain what we do for the less fortunate.”
Peppers said she has the same concerns about those who choose to panhandle, which she agrees sheds a bad light on Glenwood.
“I walk around town a lot during the summer myself and when I see panhandlers I tell them we don’t appreciate them harassing our tourists and citizens,” she said.
Regardless, it’s a protected form of free speech according to the Supreme Court, Police Chief Wilson concurs.
“There is an awful lot of misperception out there about what we can or should do when it comes to what some people see as being problematic,” he said. “Panhandling is a big piece of it.”
Wilson said police have been asked to make people who are seen as “overwhelming or dominating a public space” to leave. But he can’t do that, he said.
“I don’t feel like setting myself up for a losing lawsuit,” Wilson said.
Wilson does still view the city’s ordinance language related to panhandling near intersections as a traffic safety issue.
“But it’s a conversation we may need to have to see if we need to make any changes,” he said.
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