Three years ago, Manitou Springs business owners were dealing with the effects of an increasing population of homeless people and transients.
They congregated in the downtown area in places such as the entrance to Soda Springs Park near the Maté Factor Café, sometimes blocking sidewalks and business entrances, or harassing tourists for money.
Manitou took aggressive steps to control the situation, and the popular homeless hangout spots look very different today.
No one is certain that the transient “travelers” won’t return later this summer, but for now, business owners are happy that they aren’t experiencing the issues they’ve had in the past.
“We have no way of knowing whether the enforcement in the past made a difference now,” Manitou Mayor Ken Jaray said, “but our police department has been very clear with them that we have certain rules. It’s been made pretty clear that if they play by the rules, no problem. If they don’t, then they’re going to get in trouble. That message has been shared by other travelers.”
PARKING, RAILWAY TRUMP TRANSIENTS
Gwenn David, co-owner of The Whickerbill at Manitou Springs at 906 Manitou Ave. and co-owner of the Avenue Hotel Bed and Breakfast, is one business person who thinks tougher enforcement has made a difference.
“They have really cut down on the numbers,” David said. “I don’t see them on the library lawn as much, and certainly we don’t see them gather downtown as much as they were. ”
In previous years, David said she saw the results of the transient problem.
“I get more comments at the bed and breakfast, how they don’t like to walk through downtown when they’re gathering,” she said. “I had some guests say they would not come back until it cleared up, but those people are back. So many people just love Manitou.”
David expects that at least a few transients will return to Manitou.
“It’s a tough one to figure out, why they come, what attracts them and why they’re gone all of a sudden,” she said.
But David said she’s more concerned about the effects of the closure of the Pikes Peak Cog Railway. The railway’s owners are conducting extensive repairs and renovations that are expected to cost $95 million and take until 2020.
“The people who used to wander around while somebody took a train and while they waited for their scheduled train, those people aren’t here,” David said. “We usually have traffic even at the bed and breakfast from people from Estes Park who come one day to ride the train. That traffic is gone.”
Lane Williams, owner of Lane Mitchell Jewelers, said he isn’t seeing issues at his Manitou store but that problems with vagrants are worse at his downtown Colorado Springs location at 102 E. Pikes Peak Ave.
“They hang out at the corner of Pikes Peak and Tejon [Street],” he said. “Our type of business, where we sell expensive jewelry, we want to attract a certain type of customer. If they have to walk through crowds of vagrants and dope smoke, they won’t come.”
In Manitou, Williams said, “our biggest problem is the traffic and parking, far more than the vagrants. Fundamentally, this is not a place where you’re allowed to loiter.”
GETTING TOUGH ON TRANSIENTS
Manitou Springs City Council instituted a zero-tolerance enforcement policy in July 2016, instructing the police department to write tickets for all offenses within the city without first issuing warnings.
Council’s actions were precipitated by threats to a city employee who warned people that it was not legal to be on the stage of the Soda Springs Park pavilion, and that violence, drug sales and use, and trashing the park and pavilion were also against the law.
In an emergency meeting July 1, 2016, councilors also ordered the public services department to fence in the pavilion.
Later that month, then-Police Chief Joe Ribeiro created a program he called LEEP (Locate, Enforce, Eradicate, Prevent) targeting dozens of homeless camps in the hills above Manitou.
Relying on citizens to alert them to the camps’ locations, the police department sent teams to roust campers on city property and work with landowners to get rid of camps on private land.
With the help of volunteers and paid workers, they identified and cleaned up 18 camps that summer. The police department continued to monitor areas where camps were prevalent to prevent re-establishment.
City council also passed a sit-lie ordinance that forbids sitting, kneeling, reclining or lying on a sidewalk or street, or arranging items on surfaces in a manner that blocks the right of way. Council later modified the ordinance to clarify that street performers could play in the paver areas adjacent to the street. Another ordinance addressed aggressive panhandling.
The zero-tolerance policy was loosened in March 2017 after police officers told council it was having unintended consequences and was targeting tourists and residents. Ribeiro said at the time that the department was committed to a “friendly but appropriately firm” approach in the downtown area.
Ribeiro, who retired last week, was not available for comment, but Manitou Springs Police Department Sgt. Melissa Warden said the LEEP program is still in operation and that police officers are walking downtown beats every day.
“When we have a big influx of traveling kids, it’s hard to keep on top of it,” she said of the LEEP program, but “it’s gone pretty well.”
“We make sure officers that are working are downtown as often as possible, when they’re not on other calls for service, and making their presence known,” Warden said. “If we can’t get somebody from our department, we’re asking other agencies to help us out, like the [El Paso County] Sheriff’s Office.”
Continuing to address unsavory behavior “has made it uncomfortable for some of those people to stay,” she said. “I think it has made a difference.”
The sit-lie and panhandling ordinances have given officers the tools they need to deal with bad behavior, although “we haven’t had to use them a lot this year,” she said. “Right now, with our crazy weather, it hasn’t been so warm that they’ve wanted to come up in the mountains and hang out.”
Beth Roalstad, executive director of Homeward Pikes Peak, said it’s hard to say whether there is a correlation between Manitou’s actions and the increased presence of homeless people on the Westside and downtown, although she noted that the populations are slightly different.
“Transients are people who choose a nomadic lifestyle,” Roalstad said. “They may have some of the same challenges of the chronically homeless.”
She does think it would be beneficial for Colorado Springs, Manitou Springs and El Paso County to collaborate on addressing the problems of homelessness.
“There’s definitely an attempt to collaborate, but it can be difficult because of the different jurisdictions,” she said.
Roalstad said she has had no direct feedback from business owners but has participated in public forums where issues have been described by business owners in Old Colorado City.
“I’m empathetic to their concerns,” she said. “I encourage all business owners to participate in training called Mental Health First Aid, which is offered by the National Alliance on Mental Illness. It is a great training that increases one’s ability to understand mental illness, how to engage with someone who you’re concerned with, and how to provide a person with referrals, or how to know resources such as suicide prevention hotline when you are concerned about someone’s well-being.”