Sit in the wrong place in downtown Colorado Springs, and you could find yourself arrested. At least, that would be the case if Mayor John Suthers and several city council members have their way.
After all, people sitting, kneeling, reclining and lying down threaten business, according to champions of a proposed ordinance in which people using public planters, sidewalks, and curbs to rest could be subjected to fines of up to $2,500, jail time up to 189 days or probation.
Along with Fort Collins — another Colorado city moving forward with a proposal to make it illegal to rest in public — Colorado Springs City Council, on Monday, discussed the ordinance critics say is designed to target the homeless.
“It’s an absurd government overreach to tell people that they can’t sit, lie down, kneel or lean or recline against planters, sitting on curbs,” said John Krieger of the ACLU of Colorado.
Krieger sees this kind of legislation as a gateway to legal profiling by police.
“These ordinances are tools of selective enforcement. They are designed to target, harass and ultimately displace people who are homeless. The idea is, rather than deal with the root causes of homelessness and poverty and try to address a homelessness problem, it’s much easier for a lot of cities to try to find ways to move away or hide the problem,” said Krieger.
Colorado Springs Council President Pro Tem Jill Gaebler agreed. “If they really want to solve something, they need to deal with the root causes and not just the symptoms. That’s all this (ordinance) is doing. I really support our downtown, and I really want our merchants to thrive. All cities have vagrants, and they are all dealing with it differently. I would rather figure out how we can support these individuals or give them alternative places to go than just move them into my parks where the kids are or move them to another bench.”
Gaebler considers day shelters for the homeless to be a better option than ordinances that make it illegal to rest in the city.
Krieger agrees, adding that the gap between those needing shelter and the number of shelters and beds available is wide, a clear indicator that the real problem lies in a lack of support — and a place to rest — for those who need it most.
Some of the ban’s champions, spearheaded by Suthers, argue the ordinance would have nothing to do with homelessness.
“It’s just an issue of people having their right of way on sidewalks and to be able to walk without feeling some sort of stress. It has nothing to do with panhandling. It has nothing to do with the homeless,” said Tom Strand, the council member who brought the sit-lie ban to the table on Monday, working alongside council member Keith King.
Strand said the other concern those supporting the proposed sit-lie ban are raising is what he calls “economic viability.”
“The people who have put their lives into retail establishments in downtown areas want to have the opportunity to attract the most customers and clients that they possibly can,” said Strand. “If people don’t feel comfortable going to those places, they will find somewhere else to go.”
Krieger argues that there would be no way to properly inform people of where they can and cannot sit without littering the city with signage — which would likely steer customers away.
“One of the things we saw in the council’s work session is a complete confusion as to what is allowed and what’s not allowed — what pieces of street furniture can you sit on and can’t you sit on? Really, the only way to differentiate would be for the city to go around and put up a whole bunch of “Do Not Sit” signs all over different curbs and planters,” said Krieger. “How inviting is that to business and tourism to have a city that is covered in “Do Not Sit” signs?”
If the sit-lie ban is enacted, Colorado Springs will join cities like Denver, Boulder, Grand Junction, Telluride and Aspen, which have similar laws criminalizing panhandling and sleeping in public places.
Photo credit: Dean Hochman, Creative Commons, Flickr.