Changes in Columbia’s panhandling ordinance could take cues from the Rockies.
“Denver is a model that a lot of other downtowns look to,” said Carrie Gartner, director of the Downtown Columbia Associations.
She said the Denver ordinance, which was adopted in 2000, is a good balance between the right to free speech and the right to feel safe.
Gartner, who encouraged the council to start dealing with aggressive panhandling, was asked by Sixth Ward Councilman Brian Ash to provide the City Council with information on the issue. She recommended the Denver model because it specifically lists places where and times when panhandling is prohibited.
Denver’s regulations restricts panhandling after dark, within 6 feet of a building entrance, on a public transportation vehicle, within 20 feet of an ATM or pay phone, on public parking lots and on private property after being asked to leave. The ordinance also describes in detail what is considered aggressive panhandling.
“They’re all very good guidelines,” Gartner said. “It could be very intimidating, for example, if someone stands right next to you and asks for money when you go to the ATM.”
The Columbia ordinance defines aggressive panhandling as asking for money or goods with the intent to intimidate another person. But police say it’s difficult to enforce because of the vague wording.
“The way it’s written now, it’s difficult to make a case and develop probable cause,” said officer Mark Brotemarkle, who works the downtown beat. “I’ve only made one arrest ever for aggressive panhandling.”
Brotemarkle said the ordinance doesn’t address problems such as repeatedly asking for money or obstructing the entrance to businesses.
John Desmond, a director of the Downtown Denver Partnership, said panhandling problems have decreased since the Denver ordinance was adopted.
“The improvement has been both real and symbolic, but it’s not a panacea addressing all the causes of panhandling downtown,” Desmond said.
He said Denver police have ticketed people, but some regulations, such as the specific distance a panhandler must stay back, are hard to enforce. He said an approach that gets to the cause of the problem is more effective. Denver is evaluating social service programs and public education.
Lana Jacobs, who works at the St. Francis House shelter, said she thinks the reasons behind panhandling should be addressed rather than changing the regulations.
“To create an ordinance will just put something on the books,” Jacobs said. “This community needs to take personal responsibility.”
She said the mental health system needs to be improved because many of the homeless people she works with suffer from addictions and mental health problems. She also recommends making it easier for the courts to appoint guardians to individuals who can no longer make their own decisions.
Giving money to panhandlers is another source of problems, Jacobs said. Because the money is often used to buy alcohol and drugs, the repercussions can affect police, emergency room doctors and social service workers.
“When you give that couple of dollars, it costs all of us, and not just money but time,” Jacobs said.
Jacobs suggests those who want to help homeless people should give money to organizations, volunteer in a soup kitchen, or give panhandlers food.
Gartner agrees the public should give to local agencies that help the homeless instead of directly to panhandlers.
“When you give to organizations, you know where the money goes,” Gartner said. “When you give to panhandlers, you’re never sure where that’s going.”
Gartner said Denver’s combination of a stronger ordinance with campaigns to educate the public could work well in Columbia.
“Columbians are very compassionate people, and they should know the best way to help is to support organizations that help people,” she said.