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Solutions for the homeless without making them invisible

By: Loring Wirbel
May 5, 2013 Updated: May 5, 2013 at 9:20 am
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When U.S. District Judge Marcia Krieger granted the ACLU a partial victory last year in its suit against the city's no-solicitation zones, she had tough words for city officials. She pointed out that the city attorney argued in public that the ban applied to all, but that Mayor Steve Bach made many comments in City Council chambers indicating that the purpose of the ordinance was to remove the homeless. In reality, the mayor has the support of many Colorado Springs residents in that goal.

Citizens on the city's west side, as well as merchants with businesses downtown, are frustrated with the often-disruptive presence of the homeless. It can be difficult to explain to people that the Constitution does not allow for a right to be protected from free speech - in fact, our Founding Fathers wanted free speech to be 'in your face ' and provocative, to a certain extent.

One west-sider said matter-of-factly, 'begging for money is not free speech. ' He is wrong in this belief - begging most certainly is protected speech.

The toughest issue to confront, however, is not assuring homeless the right to beg, but efficiently providing them with useful services without resorting to means that simply drag them out of the city's central sectors.

Many services for the homeless are centrally located to begin with. Several downtown churches work with Interfaith Hospitality Network for housing homeless families. Many of the same churches have invested in improvements to Marian House, including its soup kitchen. When city officials floated ideas for moving Marian House from its current location near Bijou and I-25, many homeless advocates at those churches were outraged.

In all fairness, several concepts have been floated for new training and housing services for the homeless that may be located in more remote parts of town. Proposals touted by everyone from the mayor's informal task force, to the Pikes Peak Justice and Peace Commission, have suggested a 'campus ' where the homeless could receive a variety of services.

The difficulty lies in getting the homeless to recognize the utility of such services. Traditionally, many homeless people have rejected expanded shelter services because of the rules attached to such services. There will never be a facility that allows alcohol or drug abuse, yet the problems of mental health and substance abuse among some members of the homeless community may make it tough to align services with the people who most need them. If critical services are available only in remote facilities that are difficult to find, this makes the task more daunting than it already is.

The ACLU supports enforcement of existing panhandling ordinances that make it a crime to intimidate people when asking for money. It is also fair to attempt to create centralized services for the homeless which may be outside the downtown or west-side areas. But in devising these services, it is not OK to develop ordinances that remove the homeless from certain neighborhoods. The easy way out is to promote an 'out of sight, out of mind ' mentality, but such a view is neither fair nor constitutional.

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Loring Wirbel is the chairman of the Pikes Peak chapter of the ACLU.

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