Saying the panhandling problem extends beyond downtown Colorado Springs, residents and business owners on the west side are organizing to get city officials to pay just as much attention to the issue in their part of town, too.

Dozens of people showed up to a two-hour neighborhood meeting Wednesday to learn more about a no solicitation zone that the City Attorney’s Office is proposing for downtown.

“We have a huge problem on the west side,” said Jo Anne Croft, a west-side native.

“But we will have a bigger problem if downtown has a no solicitation ordinance. The west side can be negatively impacted as those folks have to shift somewhere from downtown,” she said.

City Attorney Chris Melcher attended the first half of the meeting and said the proposed zone to fight panhandling downtown is a pilot project that could be expanded to other areas of the city if it’s successful.

“What we’re trying to do is get a solution in place for one particular part of the community, which is downtown, and then work with every other part of the community that has concerns,” he said.

Melcher said the city has heard from four or five constituent groups about a long list of problems, including prostitution, public drunkenness, assaults and vagrancy, stretching from Old Colorado City to Manitou Springs. Enforcement and jurisdictional issues complicate the problems, he said.

“We have some laws on the books already that address a lot of these problems, and we need to try to do the best job we can on enforcing violations of those existing laws,” he said.

Colorado Springs police officer Tim Kippel told residents that the Police Department was stretched thin and that the panhandling problem wouldn’t go away with a no solicitation zone. He said police must respond to priority calls first.

“We’re going to get to it when we get to it,” he said. “I hate to burst your bubble.”

Melcher said downtown will be a test case. When asked why the city selected downtown, he said downtown representatives first approached the city government about a proposed no solicitation zone.

“They were first in line and asked us many, many months ago to try this specific solution,” he said. “The council and the mayor asked my office to look at this request specifically for the downtown.”

For residents of the west side, the panhandling problem knows no boundaries.

Business owner Casey Bopp said he was assaulted by a panhandler two days ago.

“He was putting his hands on me, and he threatened my daughter’s life,” he said.

Mail carrier Tom DeKalb, a Vietnam veteran, said he fears for his safety. He predicted that the situation wouldn’t improve until someone got hurt.

“That’s what I see happening here,” he said.

Resident Patty Strauch said a no solicitation zone may not prevent panhandling.

“But it might stop the influx,” she said.

Welling Clark, president of the Organization of Westside Neighbors, one of the groups sponsoring the meeting, encouraged residents to attend City Council meetings at which the council will take public input on the proposed no solicitation zone downtown. The proposed ordinance is scheduled to go before council for first reading Oct. 9 and, if approved, for second and final reading Oct. 23.

“I need you for two days,” Clark told the audience.

The city is working to get buy-in from the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, which has called the proposed ordinance “severely flawed.” But Melcher said the city will move forward with or without the ACLU’s support if council approves the proposal.

Contact Daniel Chacón: 476-1623

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