December 8, 2009
On a frozen Monday, as homeless people in Colorado Springs endured hell, the City Council cast a no camping ordinance into purgatory.
Advocates of a law making it illegal to camp in public rights-of-way can still work on it until it comes back to the council in February. But several council members made it clear they don’t like the idea, especially because no one has yet devised an alternative for where the homeless can go if they are evicted.
Councilman Tom Gallagher easily was the most strident opponent, recalling how he once lived under a bridge himself.
“Where else do they go?” Gallagher asked. “The gauge of a community is how it treats its least fortunate. I’m more compassionate than this ordinance, and I’m a son of a bitch.”
One tough part of this is that owners of homes or businesses within hailing distance of the camps have a fair complaint. The proposed ordinance aims to help them move camps away from their doors.
The other tough part is that in its draft form, the no camping ordinance would allow city officials to have free rein, essentially, to force hundreds of homeless people out of their camps overnight.
This year, the police department’s Homeless Outreach Team’s new approach of trying to link homeless people with social services has won praise from nearly everyone. Nobody thinks the police would use a new ordinance to pursue a radical new agenda.
Trouble is, a new City Council could use a no camping ordinance in a harsher way, giving new marching orders to the police. Any proposal must be evaluated by how it could be used, not by who is in office at the moment.
“We had the draft for some time,” said Police Chief Richard Myers, “we have concerns about the implementation.” Instead of expecting a rubber stamp, Myers said, “we bring this draft forward to start a discussion.”
Myers was on target when he observed that even advocates for the homeless don’t have a “shared vision.” Some say homeless people who don’t decide to change their situations should not be allowed to continue camping.
Others say that mental illness coupled with substance abuse prevents some of the homeless from making such rational decisions.
Vice-mayor Larry Small revealed that as a young man he was homeless for a short time, and he liked the idea of offering a hand up to those who will grasp it. But he added, “I don’t think we should say, ‘I’ll help you if you’ll become what I want you to become.’ If we could outlaw homelessness and make it go away, then we could outlaw murder and make it go away.’ ”
In a week when temperatures have been in the single digits, Small said “it’s a bad time of year to even be talking about it.”
Amen, Larry. And for punting this flawed proposal, way to go, City Council.