Vagrancy progress unclear

Sidewalk regulars, such as this hopeful rock star, still are around despite more police downtown.
Sidewalk regulars, such as this hopeful rock star, still are around despite more police downtown.

Since the city has emphasized more police presence downtown, the vagrancy issues have moved, police report.

Some business owners in downtown Colorado Springs said the vagrancy problem has not changed, and others claimed the problem has gotten better in the past three months.

For eight years, Tim O’Donnell has lived downtown in a Tejon Street loft, so he’s studied the vagrants and has seen the numbers ebb and flow.

“There are three types of homeless,” O’Donnell said — the homeless who have lived here for years and who follow the laws by asking for money only once and not aggressively, the mentally challenged who “really cannot function on their own,” and a new group of “nouveau homeless,” gypsies in their 20s who are aggressive.

The younger gypsies “don’t care about the rules. They’re more ‘in your face’ and they don’t take no for an answer,” O’Donnell said.

“If you say no, they start cursing you out, walking behind you and talking to you.”

O’Donnell said the concentration of homeless on Tejon feels higher to him than in similar-sized areas of San Diego, New York City, Jersey City and more.

He asked the vagrants why they live here, and they responded, “What’s not to like? The weather’s good. You feed us. All we have to do is beg on the streets,” O’Donnell said, paraphrasing his conversations with them. “We have all sorts of carrots in the system. Word gets around.”

A solution must involve a combination of monitoring behavior and providing for the vagrants’ needs, “but right now we’re doing a really good job of providing for their means,” he said.

Increasing police enforcement is not sustainable, O’Donnell said.

“I’m hoping the cold weather moves them down the road.”

Businesses’ comments

“It got better for two weeks, and now it’s the same as it ever was,” said Russ Mallery, who owns the 7-Eleven at 3 N. Tejon St. “Police shoo them away, and once the cops leave, they come right back.”

A recent 82-day financial audit of the store revealed a shortage of $6,200 in goods, Mallery said. The same audit at another 7-Eleven identified a shortage of $1,800.

“That’s not my employees,” Mallery said. “I’m getting the brunt of it.”

Mallery related that vagrants have told him, “Eight of us steal and two of us are buying something. We’re getting something free from you all the time.”

Mallery plans to hire security for the Christmas parade and for New Year’s Eve.

“I’ve been panhandled by people on the street,” said Cari Shaffer, owner of ADD STAFF Inc. Most of the time, she ignores them and continues walking.

But on one occasion, she said, she was aggressively pursued by two younger vagrants on Pikes Peak Avenue near the downtown post office.

“I didn’t know if it was somebody wanting to carjack or to ask for a handout,” Shaffer said. So she strongly told them to leave her alone.

When they kept pursuing her, “I finally started yelling and waving my arms. I looked like a raving lunatic, I’m sure, but I didn’t know what to do.”

Her actions caused them to stop.

“It hurts our downtown terribly,” Shaffer said. Earlier this year, she witnessed a man urinating against a building near the Antlers Hilton.

“I was just appalled. I wasn’t afraid of him like I was the other people, but what company wants to move their headquarters to Colorado Springs with that?” Shaffer asked.

Randy Case owns the building that houses 7-Eleven at Tejon and Pikes Peak.

“We continue to observe an unusual number of folks lingering around the intersection,” Case said. “It seems to be pretty consistent.”

Case said he is installing a light to the east side of the building “to make it less comfortable for people to loiter,” and the businessman has added video cameras as well.

“We’re more prepared now to prosecute inappropriate activity,” Case said.

Farther north, at 120 N. Tejon St., Downtown Partnership Board Chair Sam Eppley owns and operates Sparrow Hawk Gourmet Cookware.

Increased police presence has “definitely helped with the downtown homeless vagrant issue,” Eppley said. “There are fewer people and they’re less obtrusive. People aren’t panhandling as much.”

The Downtown Partnership has heard positive comments from its members, Eppley said, “and we’d like it to get better still.”

City perspective

Mayor Steve Bach said last week, “We are going to solve homelessness in this city while I’m mayor. Period.” He called on other elected officials to meet and begin devising a solution.

“In general, we still see a reduction in the amount of issue and complaints we hear about along the Tejon corridor,” said Colorado Springs Police Capt. Pat Rigdon. “We have seen some displacement” to America the Beautiful Park and Antlers Park.

Rigdon said the movement doesn’t surprise him, and what the city would like to do is change the vagrants’ behavior — not just panhandling, but urinating and drinking in public.

He has heard complaints about the number of younger transients who are more aggressive.

“Over the course of a year, certainly the summer, we saw an increase,” Rigdon said.

The police department expects to open a substation around the first of the year in the Braxton Technologies building at the northwest corner of Pikes Peak and Tejon, he said.

Rigdon said he’d heard the rumor that Denver was buying some vagrants bus tickets to Colorado Springs, but he’s “never been able to verify that.” He asked the Denver Police Department about the possibility, and “they’ve guaranteed that’s not occurring,” Rigdon said.

He said cooler weather will make a difference because “a true transient population will move on to a warmer climate.”

Since adding two officers to the downtown beat in August, police have issued 330 citations, Rigdon said, most of which involved urinating or drinking in public. He did not know how many of those citations resulted in court appearances.

Susan Edmondson, president and CEO of the Downtown Partnership, said, “We did see results quickly in a positive direction, and we got a lot of good feedback from folks.

“That said, this is not an issue that gets fixed in two months,” and a solution will require multiple approaches, she added.