It seems that the City has found it necessary to request Council declare a "special emergency", so that these ordinances, restricting aggressive solicitation and panhandling, can take effect immediately upon their approval by Council. This step is required by Article VI, Section 50 of the City Charter. The specific language in the charter allows for this step to be taken "for the preservation of the public peace, health or safety, and then only by the unanimous vote of all members of the council".
These ordinances have been a long time coming, and I believe they are to a large extent necessary. There is too much traffic in the places where this is occurring; the potential for injuries to panhandlers and motorists alike is too high.
What is questionable is the guerrilla tactic being employed by the City to get the ordinances read, debated, and approved in one meeting, after they appear for the first time in the agenda published three days before the meeting. Holy PATRIOT Act, Batman...
Judging from the diverse nature of the comments attached to the Sentinel's online coverage (the main Page 1 print headline on Saturday), there's no shortage of differences of opinion on how to effectively deal with people soliciting passing motorists.
The ongoing nature of this problem, irrespective of the level, frequency, or perception of the problem, is not sufficient to attempt to limit public debate or input in this manner. This may be a chronic situation that needs to be dealt with (like storm drainage, especially this month), but it's no "special emergency". Council needs to take the necessary steps to move these ordinances toward passage, but with the multiple readings and ample opportunities for citizen comment that accompany any other ordinance of this type.
I'm on the side of restricting solicitors and panhandlers, but I'm not sure that the threat of a hefty fine or jail time will have the desired effect. Here's why:
There are numerous non-profit community service agencies that provide food, clothing, and shelter to the area's transient and homeless populations. Many of these agencies signed on with the City's attempt a few years back to encourage citizens not to give money to panhandlers.
I believe that the bulk of those who engage in soliciting/panhandling do not seek assistance from the ample established resources available. This segment of the homeless population consists mainly of Chronic Public Inebriates (drunks) and/or the chronic mentally ill.
In terms of their afflictions, these persons represent one of the failure points of Mesa County's health care and social service infrastructure, that being the care and treatment of the mentally ill and alcohol abusers, which like most communities number much more than those in power are ready to admit. This is a perfect talking point for Country Jam weekend...
Today's Sentinel includes a story about the continued efforts to right the severely listing ship of Colorado West Mental Health. While there appears to be promising movement toward stability at CWMH, their target population remains under-served so long as the facility is unable to expand its bed capacity, or medically clear patients independent of the local ER's. There will continue to be an unreasonable burden placed upon local public safety until this occurs.
Speaking of unreasonable burdens, with these new ordinances our public safety and criminal justice infrastructure will experience a heightened workload experience. It will begin from the system access points (I can just imagine the 9-1-1 calls) through the field responders, to the court administrators and judges, then to the Jail and back out again. Call it the "warrant-go-round", for lack of a better term.
So our panhandler goes through this process two or three times; with no permanent address it's difficult to track him down to account for his summonses and warrants, and every time he's contacted he goes through the same cycle, impacting the dispatcher, the street cop, the court clerk, the Jail, and back around again. Can't you hear The Hollies' "On a Carousel" right about now?
Eventually, one of the following is likely to happen. He will continue his behavior and cycle through the system, until he commits other crimes and has to be jailed; he will impact the health care system more and more until he dies a premature death, owing to his level of poverty, urban outdoor lifestyle, and/or self-medication.
He could try to obtain treatment for his afflictions, seek services from the established social service providers, and begin the process of becoming a more productive and socially acceptable citizen. Are we as a City and County prepared to help?
Or, he may leave town, thus no longer impacting the local criminal justice, health care, or social service systems. He's somebody else's problem. We can then exhale and congratulate ourselves on the great job we did in caring for what Christ called "the least of these".
This leads to yet another question. Is Mesa County considering enacting an ordinance with similar language, or can we expect those we see at 1st and Grand today to set up shop at 30 Road and the I-70 Business Loop? How is this addressing the problem from the standpoint of our entire community, irrespective of the imaginary lines we draw around ourselves?
It's no secret that our governments have their work cut out for them, but as several Sentinel readers pointed out, is targeting these people with more laws the best way to deal with this?
I don't think there is any other way to address the issue, but it needs to be codified with a good deal more attention paid to what the issues and needs truly are.
With that, here are my suggestions to City Council:
- Defeat the "special emergency" designation. Luckily, it takes a unanimous vote of Council to pull something like this. It may just take one maverick to shut it down; are you up to it this time, Bill Pitts?
- Establish a timetable for research, public comment, and the careful development of an ordinance that addresses the issue from a proactive standpoint, while taking care not to encroach on civil liberties. The ACLU pays close attention to these types of ordinances, and have challenged many across the country.
- Include language in the final ordinance that earmarks all monies collected as fines to a fund, the proceeds to be distributed annually to non-profits that provide services and care to the area's transient and homeless populations.
- Commit to continued joint efforts with Mesa County and others to optimize the level of care provided for the mentally ill, as well as substance and alcohol abusers.
Have a good week ahead.