Editorial: Change policing downtown to fight vagrancy
Glenwood Springs this summer has faced an explosion of vagrancy, an issue pretty much as old as humanity.
Plautus, a Roman playwright who died in 185 B.C., wrote, “He deserves ill of a beggar who gives him to eat or to drink, for he both loses that which he gives and prolongs for the other a life of misery.”
Roughly 2,200 years later, that sums how a lot of people still feel. Others think that humanity is no greater than the least among us, and we are obliged to do all we can to lift up the suffering.
Both are right in some ways, though neither approach has or ever will fully solve the fact that some poor souls in all societies end up down and out.
Caught in between are people such as Kyle Zajac, who has taken to arriving at his Two Rivers Crossfit in Glenwood Springs before 5 a.m. to roust people sleeping in his entryway so they don’t scare off his customers, some of whom are high school girls. A lot of local businesses are in this sort of spot, and surely we can sympathize with them, just as most of us feel empathy for a military veteran who perhaps suffers post-traumatic stress disorder, chronic pain and addiction, and has ended up on the streets.
We are less sympathetic toward younger folks floating from town to town drinking, doping and panhandling tourists at the north end of the pedestrian bridge over the Colorado River. And yet we relish living in a free country — and those folks are free, too.
It’s this latter subset of the homeless, Police Chief Terry Wilson and others say, who are growing in number around Glenwood this summer. It’s a nice town with some homeless services, legal marijuana and a strong tourist economy with nearby open land for camping.
Local leaders appear to agree, and we concur, that Glenwood has reached the point at which steps are needed to protect the town’s valuable tourist trade and the comfort of small-town life for locals. Glenwood Springs isn’t going to be able to solve homelessness or chase the vagrants away, but we at the Post Independent do believe that City Council can work with businesses and the Police Department to minimize the impact that troublemakers have on the community and economy.
Homelessness raises strategic questions of what to do as a society for the down and out, but the urgent questions before us have to do with what tactical approach to take to vagrants. People end up homeless for lots of reasons. We’re not talking here about the single mom who loses her job and ends up in a car with two kids, about the homeless vet or even the longtime local town drunk. The problem is people without roots here who don’t leave others alone, who beg, who can simply be scary.
And yes, it’s a problem. Just because cities and other towns struggle with the same issue and just because even the aggressive, foul-mouthed, mentally ill beggar is a human being too doesn’t mean we have to accept that this is just how things are and do nothing. If we accept that, we then must accept that the situation will escalate, because the trend is for more of these folks to come visit us.
Visitors and some residents perceive that the city’s increasing population of this sort is harming the ambiance and attractiveness of Glenwood. Perception is reality.
So Glenwood police need to get out of their cars — whether by foot or on bikes or Segways — in tourist areas at peak times and create a visible presence. Officers out of their vehicles can talk to folks who are on the edge of misbehaving, they can haul some of them away for harassment or drunkenness and send a message that will spread among the troublemaking population — just as word has supposedly spread that Glenwood is a good spot to be homeless.
A visible police presence outside of vehicles will comfort visitors and night workers and encourage tolerably subdued behavior from the address-free begging community.
Police Chief Wilson says he doesn’t have sufficient personnel to do this.
Communities and organizations often shift priorities based on needs. This is a need, and the City Council can direct this change. We are confident that Wilson and the council can work out an acceptable solution by next summer, when the tourists and the drifters come back. Measured steps can be taken in the meantime to test what might be effective.
The council has an obligation to protect commerce and ambiance. Glenwood’s critical sales tax receipts are growing and must be protected so the town can afford operations and move ahead on needed projects. Beyond perceptions of public safety, this is a fiscal issue.
A bit of up-close policing and a lower tolerance for some violations isn’t mean spirited. We as a community can work on services and compassion while we protect our image and economy.
Meanwhile, individuals have a role. Take Plautus’ advice. Don’t give beggars money. Don’t get into arguments. Smile and walk by. Heck, say hello. But don’t enable them or contribute to the idea that this is a great place for them to be.
Businesses have a role. Restaurants that don’t want beggars bothering their customers shouldn’t feed them at the end of the night.
Take these steps now and work on the big, albeit insoluble issues on a longer horizon.
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