Around the Front Range region this summer — Colorado Springs, Manitou Springs, Pueblo and Denver — one topic seems to dominate conversations: the increasing number of young, apparently jobless, possibly homeless, vagrants behaving aggressively on the streets in all four cities.
These young men and women aren’t the same as the homeless population that typically populates city centers — people down on their luck who are temporarily homeless with no place else to go, or even those with disabilities or mental illness who have few other options.
These people — new to the community — behave aggressively. They don’t seem interested in kind gestures or getting help from social services or one of the nonprofits in town. Instead, they enjoy being rude, obscene, overly forceful. They catcall and yell, hold signs with expletives or ones that explain they just need some food and marijuana. They only want your cash, not your assistance — and certainly not a job.
One Manitou business owner described offering a job to a man seeking money. He said he’d give him $20 to help him shovel snow off the parking lot last March. He got an angry response for his trouble. Another business person in downtown Colorado Springs said she saw a sign, saying “F-you, just give me money.” And in Denver, a businessman was assaulted after refusing to give money to a vagrant.
While most homeless people just need assistance and compassion — an address to put on job applications, a place to sleep at night — these people don’t want those things. It’s not even certain that they are homeless, just that they are jobless and plan to stay that way, with our assistance.
People say a vibrant downtown always attracts homeless people. In the past, that was true in Colorado Springs. And when given the option of staying at a shelter or at the Chief Motel (thanks to El Pomar Foundation and Homeward Pikes Peak), they seized the opportunity to have a place to call home and an opportunity to find work.
Don’t lump all homeless people in with this crowd of vagrants.
Business owners should be careful — don’t lump all homeless people in with this crowd of vagrants who seem to get a certain amount of pleasure from being as obnoxious and aggressive as they can. Also, don’t confuse the buskers — people playing music on the street for money — with this special subset of vagrants. Buskers add life and flavor to downtown streets; vagrants only add vandalism, shoplifting and trouble.
Statistics show that most homeless people are single mothers with children, while others are disabled in some way that prevents them from finding regular work.
This new crop doesn’t fit either description, and there are few legal solutions to address the problem.
Harassment is illegal, but most people aren’t going to call the cops because there’s a person holding a sign with an expletive, or if someone yells at people because they didn’t pass over their spare cash.
Even the city’s new ban on sitting and lying down on downtown’s streets and parks won’t affect this roving gang of vagrants. They’ll just move to the next street or maybe the next town.
So what’s the solution? Is it Pueblo’s answer, giving people a free bus ticket “home”? Or should Colorado Springs continue to issue tickets and jail people who violate the sit/lie ban or the aggressive panhandling ban?
As a community, we need to come up with compassionate, humane answers to the homeless situation — and that doesn’t mean criminalizing poverty.
However, we need to make a distinction, and let people know they can’t threaten locals and drive away business with crass, rude, over-the-top behavior.