Roadside Panhandling Ordinance Proposed, Colorado Springs

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Mon, 21 Jun 1999 08:22:22 EDT


Panhandling getting closer look by city



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By Raymond McCaffrey/The Gazette

On an exit ramp off Interstate 25, Leon Mann appeared to be as much a symbol 
of the changing face of the city as the bumper-to-bumper traffic before him.

Cardboard signs in hand - "Every Body Needs Help Sometimes God Bless You & 
Me," another that read simply "Homeless" - Mann stood motionless at the side 
of the road, careful not to violate the personal space of the motorists 
escaping the gridlock on the interstate.

"I've had people threaten to kill me," Mann said.

Although Mann looks innocuous - he's a slight man with a gray beard and 
weathered face - his begging seems to elicit as much controversy as, say, 
bumper-to-bumper traffic.

"The best thing to do is stand here, and they just stick it (money) out the 
window," Mann said. "On a good day, you can make $40."

As Shakespeare might have said: To give or not to give, that is the question.

"I figure if they've come to this, they need help," said one young mom, who 
handed Mann some money as she drove by in her sport-utility vehicle, windows 
open, a load of young children inside.

"Hell no," growled another motorist, a man in a Jeep. "It's like a stray dog. 
If you feed them, they keep coming around."

The subject of panhandlers is such a hot-button issue that the City Council, 
at the request of Police Chief Lorne Kramer, is considering an amendment 
designed to crack down on begging. 

The proposal, scheduled to be discussed at Monday's City Council meeting, 
would restrict solicitation at certain intersections and along certain 
roadways where such activity presents a traffic and public safety hazard to 
both the motorists and those involved in such activity, Kramer wrote in a 
memo to City Manager Jim Mullen.

"We were getting complaints from motorists about ... aggressive panhandling," 
said Springs Police Lt. Rich Resling.

"We tried to look at some ways we could alleviate the problem," he said.

Those concerns also have made their way to members of the City Council.

"There is a concern for the perception of safety, and there's the perception 
of what kind of a place is this where people are out there with cardboard 
signs at the end of ramps," Mayor Mary Lou Makepeace said.

"My personal opinion is I don't like it. ... I know it makes me feel 
uncomfortable. I know it makes many women feel unsafe, and I think it 
projects a poor image of our community," she said.

The plan comes at a time when community leaders have been trying to improve 
services for the needy, including setting up a sort of campus near downtown 
for such individuals.

The city has had a sizable homeless population for years. According to the 
1990 census, there are roughly 300 homeless people in Colorado Springs, the 
majority of whom live in shelters. However, the sight of panhandlers by the 
side of the highways is relatively new.

"It's become a nationwide phenomenon," Resling said. "It's become - for lack 
of a better word - 'trendy.' They can literally work their way coast to 
coast. I think it's been the most prevalent in the past five years. ... Now 
we have a record population that is here full time. They work (the roadways) 
full time. They work in shifts."

Who exactly these people are is subject to debate. Some, like Mann, who lives 
under a bridge, are from out of town - he said he's from Dallas.

According to Debbie Mitguard, director of the Red Cross Shelter, which houses 
more than 200 homeless people each night, the panhandlers typically are not 
residents there.

"I think many of the folks I've seen on the highway exits and the freeways 
have been around for a long time," Mitguard said. "Typically they're folks 
living on their own somewhere. ... It's a pretty elusive group."

Some actually are residents of the community.

"Certainly everybody who's homeless doesn't do this," said Steve Handen, a 
former Catholic priest who helped start the Marian House soup kitchen and 
still works with the homeless. "And many many people who do it are not 
homeless, but they're low-income."

Many of the panhandlers are disabled, Handen said, primarily due to mental 
illness.

It's not that they can't find work; they're just not able to.

"There are jobs available. We're at an incredible moment in Colorado Springs 
history where there are a lot of jobs. A lot of those people are disabled," 
Handen said.

Handen, though, is not as upset about the phenomenon as others. "We like to 
call them independent lobbyists for private-sector funding," he said.

"If somebody gives somebody a buck, it doesn't make the giver poor or the 
receiver rich. It just may make the day easier for both of them."


Raymond McCaffrey may be reached at 636-0248 or rmcolumn@gazette.com






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