To counter complaints in the business community about the city’s growing transient population, Manitou Springs has contracted with the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office and the Colorado Springs Police Department to provide patrol officers to start this week and continue through Labor Day Weekend.
The tourist town has seen its homeless population rise during the past several years, said Manitou Springs Mayor Nicole Nicoletta, and they are arriving earlier every summer.
“There’s definitely a larger population of homeless and certainly of — and they use the term — street kids,” Nicoletta said. “I’m sure [that population] will get larger and larger as the summer goes on.”
‘A tough situation’
Gwenn David, along with her husband Randy Hodges, a Manitou Springs city councilor, have owned the Avenue Hotel Bed and Breakfast on Manitou Avenue for about eight years. The couple also recently took over Whickerbill Gifts just a few blocks west.
David has watched the area’s homeless population, mostly composed of younger people, grow over the years, and she believes it’s harming business.
“I know we’ve had guests who are not happy,” she said. “We’ve heard some say they will not return.”
While locals may be accustomed to the homeless presence, David said, it’s not the image she wants portrayed to tourists.
“I feel that the street kids are very much a deterrent to our tourism industry, which makes our city thrive,” she said. “We have guests wonder what’s happened in the city, asking why they can congregate like they do and get in people’s way. I had one guest bitten by one of their dogs. We have guests who have been asked for their leftovers when they come out of restaurants. It’s not a pleasant environment.”
And it’s gotten worse, David said.
“Absolutely, within about the past four years,” she said. “I think it’s because it’s more allowed. We’re not able to enforce anything that restricts their behavior on the street. It’s their constitutional right to be there, even with their dogs and sitting on park benches for extended periods.
“It’s a tough situation when there’s no recourse that business owners or the city can enforce.”
But the additional downtown patrols performed by sheriff’s deputies and CSPD officers should add teeth to code enforcement, said Manitou Springs Police Chief Joe Ribeiro. And while Ribeiro said he would like Manitou officers to perform those duties, his force is understaffed.
“I have completed a study to present to council asking for an increase in personnel,” Ribeiro said, adding he would like to hire two officers by the end of July, but they would not be ready for duty until at least November.
There is no evidence pointing to an increase in service calls that can be directly linked to the city’s transient population, said Odette Saglimbeni, public information officer for the Manitou Springs Police Department.
Ribeiro, however, said his department has seen an increase in general calls for service year after year.
“Calls for service are on the rise,” he said. “But attributing those to a particular issue is difficult. The good news is most of our calls are quality-of-life calls. We don’t see a lot of violent crime in Manitou. We’ve had two concerning issues in the last two months that are hopefully anomalous. Mostly it’s theft or domestic violence or intoxication.”
Much of the officers’ time includes educating businesses, visitors and the transient population “about what the rules are, what’s acceptable behavior and what’s constitutionally enforceable,” he said.
While transients pose challenges every year, this year’s population arrived early, Ribeiro said.
“They’re less polite, would be a politically correct way to say it,” he said. “The tone seems to be more edgy. We’ve seen more anti-social behavior, and council is especially concerned.”
The city hired a private security company to patrol Manitou Springs last year, Nicoletta said, but without enforcement capabilities, they served more as community-builders as opposed to enforcers.
“They were an extra set of eyes, which was great for relationship-building, but we’ve had too many residents, visitors and business owners that are done with that approach,” she said. “That’s not to say that we’ll be overly aggressive, but what we’ve done is not working. [Transients] are not picking up after themselves and taking care of the town, and some are being a bit too aggressive.”
A month ago, Nicoletta conducted two public meetings about panhandling. The discussion centered on the city’s ordinances about its homeless population that have proved to be unenforceable in court cases brought by the American Civil Liberties Union in other cities.
“The ordinances we had were not holding water in court,” she said. “For instance, we already have ordinances that say you can’t lay out a blanket and sell your rocks or your art. Why do you get to do that and the business owners have to pay an incredible amount of taxes?”
Nicoletta added that she often hears Manitou, because of its highly successful recreational marijuana dispensaries, should have the money available to pay for additional law enforcement.
“It’s also a huge illusion to think we’re rolling in dough because of the pot money,” she said. “We have millions of dollars in flood mitigation projects, and we are, for the first time, where the [Generally Accepted Accounting Principles] would want us to be. That’s enough money in our general fund to operate the city, if nothing comes in, for two or three months. That’s not long. There is a lot coming in, but it’s coinciding with huge expenses.”
She said she doesn’t foresee a time when the city will be financially comfortable.
“If we’re not spending money on flood recovery and mitigation, then we have to do fire mitigation, and our infrastructure is so old.
“It’s like individuals,” she said. “You’re not making a ton so you budget for the essentials. Now that you’re making a little bit, it’s like ‘Wow, I’ve been needing to replace my driveway.’ And now we get to do that.
“I don’t think there will ever be a time where we’re just rolling in [money] with no idea what to do with it.”