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Proposed sit-lie law now following idea of lone opponent on Colorado Springs City Council

September 26, 2015 Updated: September 26, 2015 at 2:03 pm
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photo - City officials are working on an ordinance to ban people from sitting or lying on sidewalks, planters or anywhere else not specifically designed to be sat upon downtown and in Old Colorado City. Outside the 711 convenience store, is a popular place for congregation at Tejon St. and E. Pikes Peak Ave. A group gathers and hangs out on the planters on Monday, Aug. 24, 2015. (Jerilee Bennett/The Gazette)
City officials are working on an ordinance to ban people from sitting or lying on sidewalks, planters or anywhere else not specifically designed to be sat upon downtown and in Old Colorado City. Outside the 711 convenience store, is a popular place for congregation at Tejon St. and E. Pikes Peak Ave. A group gathers and hangs out on the planters on Monday, Aug. 24, 2015. (Jerilee Bennett/The Gazette) 

The sit-lie ordinance proposed by Colorado Springs Councilmen Keith King and Tom Strand has been imploding rapidly, morphing into what council President Pro Tem Jill Gaebler suggested at the start.

References to which planters and benches legally can be sat upon have been deleted from the law, leaving only a ban on sitting or lying on sidewalks. And the penalty of up to six months in jail and a $2,500 fine has been reduced to a maximum $500 fine. 

But even the pared-down ordinance, if enacted, might imperil the local Continuum of Care's chances at $1.9 billion issued by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for homeless programs.

The Obama administration's new approach ties those funds to whether applicants are taking steps to reduce the criminalization of homeless people, characterized as laws making it illegal to sit on sidewalks, ask for spare change or sleep in a public place, reports the National Coalition for the Homeless.

HUD now will ask applicants to describe steps they're taking to reduce criminalization by working with policymakers and police and by making plans to ensure homelessness isn't criminalized.

"The federal perspective on these types of ordinances is that the 'criminalization of homelessness' is unconstitutional, expensive and ineffective," said Christine A. Baumann, public affairs specialist for HUD's Region VIII center in Denver.

But the wording emphasizes how groups will reach out to people unable to access homeless services, "so it does not make it impossible for applicants to get those points just because of the ordinances you mentioned," Baumann said.

Up to two points may be granted to applicants that show they use specific strategies that prevent criminalization of homelessness, further fair housing and ensure they are reaching out to those least likely to request services, HUD documents show.

"We are very confident that we can evidence to HUD that we are moving toward the provision of comprehensive services to assist the homeless and that we have no intention of criminalizing homelessness," Mayor John Suthers said. "Rather, we are committed to dealing with a public safety and economic issue in our downtown area.

"It is true that we are working toward a campus concept, where we would have a broad range of services available to the homeless in a single campus, but that should not preclude us from dealing with a serious issue in terms of making our sidewalks safe and promoting economic development. We are not criminalizing the homeless, but rather, we are actively working to help."

"I think the city's direction needs to move much more heavily toward how we can get some of these funds so we can open our day center and really help the homeless rather than pass this ordinance," Gaebler said Thursday. "Given this new information, I hope we work to get that day center open ASAP."

But the ordinance isn't criminalizing anyone, said Gaebler and Aimee Cox, manager of the city's housing and community initiatives division.

"The city would argue that the proposed sit-lie ordinance doesn't criminalize homelessness because it provides other places to sit and lie," Cox said. "We just don't know what the definition is. We need the technical assistance to learn what HUD means by that."

Still, Gaebler and Strand expressed concern about losing HUD money.

"I still support moving forward with those components of the ordinance," Gaebler said. "But I think we should take the time to review whatever HUD is proposing so we don't lose those funds."

Anne Beer, administrator of the local Continuum of Care, said the HUD materials were released Sept. 18 and amended Thursday.

"We are in the process of reviewing them and will seek clarification if needed," she said. "Up to this point, we've found one question about criminalization worth two out of the 200 possible points, and it seems to be focused on the Fair Housing Act and the removal of barriers ..."

Strand introduced the sit-lie measure Aug. 24 to ban sitting, lying, kneeling or reclining on streets, sidewalks and other rights-of-way and on certain planters in the downtown and Old Colorado City commercial districts.

Gaebler quickly voiced concerns.

"When we're listing sizes of benches, it seems like we're listing a couple of different areas. What are we really doing? We're just moving people to other benches closer to other merchants," she said then. "I don't really like how that is specified. I really just feel this ordinance is not solving anything."

Councilman Don Knight questioned the penalty and suggested a $500 fine would be more appropriate. That change has been made since the council started fielding intense criticism on the law.

Also at the Aug. 24 meeting, Councilman Andres Pico said he had been "a little bit concerned" about the proposal.

"I think you've answered most of the questions; I think the public process will answer any (other) questions," he said.

"I was actually surprised that day to be the only one really against it," Gaebler said later in August. "I know Knight was concerned about the fees, which are ridiculous because who's going to pay them?

"I'm not denying there's a problem. It's just that this ordinance isn't going to have an impact. We do have current tools we could be employing - no loitering, no smoking within 15 feet (of a doorway). We have a brand new substation. Police could be a little more visible in that area."

She also said she hoped the council would "really take stock in all the stakeholder feedback we receive and maybe delay this longer to ensure we're bringing forward something the community supports."

Strand announced Sept. 17 that a vote on the issue has been bumped back to Nov. 24, and one or two more public hearings will be held before then.

After that announcement, Gaebler again opined on how the proposal should read.

"I can get behind no lying down anywhere, whether on flowerbeds or on the ground. I can also get behind no sitting and impeding walkways. But I can't get behind no sitting at that one corner," outside the 7-Eleven at Tejon Street and East Pikes Peak Avenue.

"My recommendation is we move forward with no sitting on the ground, no lying on the ground, and do something else at that corner. Do some proactive change to that corner that doesn't involve telling people where to sit and being confusing.

"The mayor and (Chief of Staff Jeff Greene) seemed very open. I don't think they want a 5-4 vote on this."

That's exactly what the mayor suggested at the council's Monday work planning session.

"I don't have a problem if we just talk about sitting or lying and don't talk about benches or planters. It's up to us if we want to make it uncomfortable to sit on planters," he said. "I would be very concerned about eliminating the possibility of a jail sentence, at least for the second offense. We need to have some greater consequence for second and subsequent offenses," Suthers said.

Strand said, "I made it clear that ($500 fine) was for the first offense. What about community service?"

Suthers said, "That's always a consequence, even on the first offense."

As Gaebler had earlier, several council members expressed concern that neither they nor their constituents see police patrolling downtown. Suthers said he would check into it.

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Billie Stanton Anleu: 636-0371

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