Shift in vagrants vexes city, businesses
The owner of a Glenwood Springs gym has resorted to showing up early before his morning class because he often has to clear passed-out drunks from the doorway.
Another business owner says she has offered to pay a customer to give a ride out of town to one of the local vagrants who panhandles in front of her downtown store.
Yet another says he has had customers hole up in his coffee shop to avoid the sometimes-aggressive panhandling in the parking lot and to steer clear of other, more disturbing behavior.
Those are the kinds of routine encounters some business owners around Glenwood say they have been dealing with during a summer that, by most accounts, has seen an increase in the number of vagrants passing through and lingering during the height of tourist season.
“It’s definitely a tough situation,” said Matthew Starbuck, who owns and operates the Deja Brew coffee shop in the 1200 block of Grand Avenue. “I have a strong humanitarian side myself, and I understand there is a legitimate problem we have with the homeless in our community.
“But the demographic of the homeless has severely changed over the last couple of years,” Starbuck said, referring to a younger set that is out on the road living a vagabond lifestyle.
“We as business owners are dealing with those impacts, and the tourists are seeing it too,” he said.
Kyle Zajac, owner of Two Rivers Crossfit in the commercial plaza located to the south of Rite-Aid, said his 5 a.m. workout class includes several high-school girls who are getting ready for upcoming sports seasons.
But when they or their parents who were dropping them off encountered one or more people passed out near the entrance to the gym, they became concerned for the girls’ safety, Zajac said.
“I have to get there early to get them to leave, because my clients are too scared to come to class,” he said. “I was born and raised here, and it’s amazing how fast the population of homeless has gone up.”
A recent letter-writer to the Post Independent from the Front Range, who said she and her family have been regular visitors to Glenwood Springs, called attention to a “disturbing change” they observed on a recent visit related to the transient, homeless population.
The letter prompted a long string of Facebook comments from people speaking to all sides of the issue, some endorsing stricter controls on panhandling and loitering while others urge greater tolerance.
Other letter-writers and one guest columnist whose op-ed was published in the Post Independent on Sunday have written in support of helping the homeless and being more accepting of their plight, saying homelessness, regardless of the reason, is a societal issue and not something unique to Glenwood Springs.
The concerns have gotten to the ears of Glenwood City Council members, who are arranging for a community meeting next month with business owners, police, service providers — and with an open invitation the homeless population as well — to discuss the issue and determine what might be done to quell the situation.
“We want to have a very comprehensive discussion and hear from everyone involved,” Mayor Michael Gamba said. “We’ve already heard many businesses relate to us what they have seen, and what tourists are saying.
“We need to sit down with the agencies who are serving the homeless and hear from them, determine what the problem really is, and figure out some solutions,” Gamba said.
Gamba and others, including Glenwood Police Chief Terry Wilson and some of the service providers, say they have seen a shift in the make-up of the local population of seasonal drifters.
More and more, based on anecdotal accounts, people in their 20s and early 30s are showing up in Glenwood Springs and other resort communities. They often stay put for a while, attracted by the mountainous setting where they can find hidden spots to camp, make decent money panhandling in town and, in cases, spend it on alcohol, legal marijuana and certain illegal drugs that are readily available.
But the local homeless population is still a mix that includes people truly down on their luck economically, some of whom have longstanding ties to the local community, as well as military veterans and others who are clearly suffering from mental health issues that land them on the street without the help they need, observers say.
“Then there are those who appear to be homeless by choice,” Gamba said. “While I am sympathetic to the first two groups of people, I can’t say the same about the latter group.”
Chief Wilson said his officers regularly encounter that particular group.
“We have had a big increase in the number of folks in general who don’t have a permanent place to call home,” Wilson said. “We’re contacting folks every day and every night.”
In particular, he spoke to this new young demographic that he believes is coming to Colorado in part for legal recreational marijuana, “and the outstanding services we have to offer them here in Glenwood Springs.”
Wilson was speaking to the various nonprofit, religious-based organizations that provide services for the homeless and downtrodden, including LIFT-UP’s Extended Table soup kitchen and the Feed My Sheep day center that provides a place to take a shower, make a phone call or two and gather up some camping supplies that are donated to the facility.
But one of the local drifters who said she first came to Glenwood Springs four years ago and has made it her “home base” of sorts, says she doesn’t take advantage of those services.
“I’ve been from coast to coast, and this is just a cool town,” said K. Archer, who declined to give her full first name. “I’ve met a lot of nice people who also come here, and the locals and tourists are usually nice.”
Archer, 26, who can often be found with her dog, Skank, panhandling on the pedestrian plaza in the 700 block of Grand Avenue, said she adopted the “traveling life” six years ago after leaving her home in Virginia. She picks up day jobs when she can, and stays in touch with her family.
She doesn’t condone the sometimes-aggressive panhandling by others who are out on the street or up on the pedestrian bridge doing the same. “And, honestly, some people get drunk and don’t take care of themselves,” she said. “I just try to sit here quietly.”
“Normally I don’t stay anywhere that long,” Archer adds. “But I have so many friends here, and it’s easy to get stuck in a place like this.
“If people don’t like it, then don’t let your town be so much fun,” she said.
HUMAN SERVICES CONCERN
Wilson was present last week when the issue of homelessness and vagrancy came up during a regular meeting of the Garfield County Human Services Commission.
It was an eye-opener, he said, in the sense that he learned of some of the needed services being provided for certain segments of the local homeless population that are absolutely crucial.
For instance, the Family Resource Center of the Roaring Fork School District, which works to provide student access to health services, now has a liaison to help identify homeless families with school-age children.
“Among their services is making sure children who are in a homeless condition get into school and have a chance to be successful,” Wilson related. “If we come across folks in that situation, we now know that’s a resource we can turn to.
“There are an awful lot of folks who we never deal with,” he said. “They’re not causing trouble … and they’re a totally different segment of that larger demographic with totally different needs.”
Julie Olson, who co-chairs the Human Services Commission and is director of the Advocate Safehouse Project, agrees. But many of the organizations that provide services are not inclined to make that judgment, she said.
“It’s hard to determine whether someone truly needs help or if they are just out to take advantage of services because they can,” Olson said. “Many people are only a couple of paychecks away from being homeless themselves. It’s not just here, it’s happening in a lot of places.”
On the street, it’s important to make a distinction between a true public safety issue and a situation that’s just uncomfortable to be around, she said.
“If you feel threatened, yes, call the police,” Olson said. “If it’s just uncomfortable, that’s not a public safety issue.”
Extended Table, which is run by LIFT-UP but is staffed by a variety of volunteer church groups and other organizations, offers a free meal five nights a week at the First United Methodist Church in downtown Glenwood Springs to anyone who wants to come.
It’s an open-door policy with no questions asked, unless someone shows up visibly drunk or high, or is being a nuisance to others, said Kimberly Loving, director of LIFT-UP.
The numbers of meals served so far this year don’t indicate a huge increase over last year, and in fact are down through July compared with 2014, Loving said. Through July, about 9,700 meals had been served, compared with 9,900 through the same period last year, she said.
“Those numbers do fluctuate,” she said. “What I am hearing, though, is that there is an increasingly different demographic. It’s not just affecting us or Feed My Sheep, it’s a societal issues, and it’s everyone’s issue.”
Nicole Nelson owns the Elizabeth Dean Boutique in the 700 block of Grand, and has had several encounters with Archer and others about panhandling for long hours on the pedestrian plaza.
“People literally run by, it makes them so uncomfortable,” Nelson said. “When she (Archer) told me she was trying to get back to Denver, I started asking customers, offering to pay them to give her a ride.”
She actually had a taker.
“It’s humbling to see that people would do that, and shows there are great people out there,” Nelson said. “I do keep telling customers that I am compassionate, and I’ve always wanted to help open a homeless shelter. But in a lot of ways we’re not helping them, we’re just giving them a handout and enabling them.”
She looks forward to the upcoming community conversation, and would like to encourage measures that other communities have adopted, such as limiting the amount of time someone can linger in a public area.
“We’re all speaking, but none of us are listening to each other,” Nelson said.
Glenwood Springs has an ordinance that covers aggressive panhandling, but not one for loitering in a public place.
Marianne Virgili, longtime director and CEO for the Glenwood Springs Chamber Resort Association, said she hears it too.
“It is complicated, because for some people this is a lifestyle choice, while other people have just come on hard times,” she said. “It’s a tough issue for communities to deal with, and whether it’s best to provide more services or not. Some people just need counseling about how to get a job and get back to work.”
For the city’s part, it has taken some steps to try to control panhandling, including removing a shelter on Seventh Street across the street from several restaurants that had become a popular gathering spot. Recently, the city also began turning off its free wireless Internet in parks an hour earlier, 10 p.m. instead of 11, to help control some of the late-night gatherings. The Glenwood Springs Library has done the same at its outdoor plaza area.
Chief Wilson said he would like for his officers to be able to do more foot patrols to help keep the peace, but for the moment is down four officers, which makes that difficult.
“That limits what we can do proactively,” he said.
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