Homeless speak out during Carbondale panhandling discussion
Glenwood Springs correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado
CARBONDALE – Rob Houston didn’t plan to be homeless and out of work after several years of good-paying jobs as a journeyman carpenter during the valley’s boom years.
“I’ve been a productive, hard-working citizen,” said Houston, one of a trio of area homeless men summoned by Carbondale Trustee John Hoffmann to attend Tuesday night’s Carbondale Town Council discussion on the panhandling situation at the corner of Highways 82 and 133.
“But after 9/11, the work started to taper off,” Houston said of the first of two national recessions following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. “Now, there’s nothing.”
Houston said he’s been homeless for the last “six or seven” years, but still calls the valley home. Currently, that happens to be Glenwood Springs, but he often spends time at the busy highway intersection outside Carbondale begging for money, food, a job, a place to stay for the night … anything.
“Just doing everything I could to get by … just trying to survive,” he said before town trustees and Garfield County officials who were gathered to address what some believe has become a safety concern with panhandlers frequenting the area.
“I don’t want to stand out there with a sign, I’m just doing what I have to,” Houston said.
One other homeless man who didn’t want his name in the newspaper said he worked with the Salvation Army, which helped him sober up. But he still can’t get a job.
“I want a job, but nobody’s taking me on,” he said, adding that the police and public land rangers have kicked him out of several locations. “What am I supposed to do?”
Other stories are similar, said Trustee Hoffmann, who spent time earlier in the day Tuesday finding out about some of the people who frequent the corner.
“For a lot of them, they just reach bottom, and it’s really hard to claw out of that,” he said. Some also have military backgrounds, so post-traumatic stress is a strong likelihood, he said.
Joining the town trustees to discuss the issue were Garfield County Sheriff Lou Vallario and all three county commissioners.
Earlier this year, town officials asked for help in addressing the panhandling situation, which has been a frequent source of public complaints, as well as police calls related to public safety. But since the intersection is outside town limits, there’s little the town can do.
Vallario said his department’s dilemma is that the former loitering and vagrancy laws that used to be on the books related to public property have been ruled unconstitutional, unless it involves school property.
Because it’s a state highway, the issue could be addressed from a public safety standpoint with signs prohibiting pedestrians. But, because it’s also a controlled pedestrian crossing, it would be hard to enforce, he said.
“We don’t really have a criminal enforcement hammer,” Vallario said. Besides, “it’s something that requires more of a social model approach.”
He and others at the meeting suggested a public awareness campaign to discourage people from giving directly to the panhandlers, but to instead give to some of the human service agencies that can help those in need.
“There are people out there who choose this lifestyle, including some who are regular clients of ours,” the sheriff added. “I’m not suggesting times aren’t tough, but there’s a distinction between those who are truly in need and those who make this choice.”
Bottom line for law enforcement is that it’s a public safety issue having them congregate at a busy highway intersection, Vallario said.
“I’m not suggesting we run these people out the community, but I don’t want to deal with one of these guys getting hit and killed out there,” he said.
Commissioner Tresi Houpt said a public education campaign may be the way to go, “as difficult as that may be.”
She also suggested setting up a work session with the various human service agencies that could offer assistance, which the town trustees agreed to be a part of.
“That way we can come up with some solutions to make life more successful for these guys,” Houpt said.
Town Trustee John Foulkrod also suggested coming up with an alternative location for allowing panhandling that might be safer.
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