The homeless a concern for Glenwood tourism officials
Glenwood Springs correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado
GLENWOOD SPRINGS ” Drunks on buses, panhandling, harassment and a recently publicized assault at a transient camp near town are hardly the sort of thing at least one local tourism official wants people to think of when they think of Glenwood Springs.
Peter Tijm is looking for solutions to problems associated with members of Glenwood’s homeless population, though he believes only a small percentage of the homeless actually cause problems.
Tijm owns the Lavender and Thyme Bed and Breakfast and is the chairman of Glenwood’s Tourism Board, which sent a letter to the city last month detailing its concern about transients’ impacts on tourism. The board also offered to help find a solution.
Tourism Board members have received complaints and letters from visitors that describe everything from being annoyed with begging and panhandling to feeling unsafe, according to the letter.
Tijm fears that either by word of mouth, or through the media, Glenwood has been glorified as a great place for homeless people to reside, where plentiful charities hand out food, lodging and other services.
Homeless people can find things like free meals almost every day, showers, laundry and computers to use, and even a place to stay overnight in the wintertime, thanks to the efforts charities such as Feed My Sheep, the Extended Table, LIFT-UP, Catholic Charities and the Salvation Army.
Adding to Glenwood’s appeal are scenic mountain views and hot springs that line the Colorado River, though the “hot pots,” as they’re known, were made off-limits last year after a history of problems. An interstate and railroad also make the town easily accessible.
“The homeless think this is better than sliced bread here,” Tijm said.
A man who goes by the name “Cooter” said in an April interview with the town’s newspaper, the Post Independent, that people are “stupid” if they go hungry in Glenwood, given all the available programs.
No one knows exactly how many homeless people there are in Glenwood Springs. Karolyn Spencer, associate director of Feed My Sheep, said the organization ” the area’s largest provider for the homeless ” served 295 people last year. She estimates at any given time, there are 30 to 40 homeless people in Glenwood in the winter, and some 100 in the summer.
Tom Ziemann, director of Catholic Charities, said in April that there are also a lot of people living on the edge of homelessness in the Roaring Fork Valley. A financial crisis can put them in the homeless population.
Police Chief Terry Wilson said police have seen a greater influx of homeless people in Glenwood Springs this summer than previous summers.
“There’s a lot of new faces and some of our new faces are definitely problematic for us,” he said.
Between April 1 and June 17, police made 46 arrests of homeless people for crimes such as trespassing, shoplifting, drinking or urinating in public, and disturbances in parks. Many arrests involved the same individuals getting in trouble on multiple occasions.
Wilson called the number of arrests “ridiculous” and a drain on police resources and tax dollars. No number was immediately available for the same period in previous years, but Wilson said he knows arrests are on the increase, given his tenure in Glenwood.
He said the homeless population is more visible in the summer, but last winter, there were a lot of complaints about homeless people riding buses for half the day, often drunk or drinking.
On morning last week, he said, police responded to calls about a homeless person walking through the traffic lanes on the Grand Avenue Bridge and a second complaint about an individual was trespassing at a hotel and harassing someone. A little over a week ago, Wilson said, a homeless man approached an off-duty police officer on the Grand Avenue pedestrian bridge and asked for $100.
On July 9, a man and a woman were cited for illegal camping in a sewer pipe below the railroad tracks near Seventh Street. Tourists crossing the pedestrian bridge and spotting homeless people waking up from a night in a sewer pipe isn’t exactly the image tourism promoters want to market for Glenwood Springs.
Mayor Bruce Christensen said some of the biggest complaints about homeless people are public drunkenness or being drunk on the free Ride Glenwood buses, along with panhandling ” mostly on the pedestrian bridge or Seventh Street. The incidents are frightening for tourists and other residents, he said.
Christensen said some are concerned that charities operating downtown have led to increased panhandling in the downtown area, but he’s not sure the connection is valid.
“It does seem like we have a fairly large population of homeless people for a town the size of Glenwood,” he said.
“Just from my perspective, it seems like it’s more visible to me than the last two summers,” agreed Kate Collins, the chamber’s vice president of tourism marketing.
To address problems, the city has adopted an ordinance prohibiting panhandling within 100 feet of intersections, and police have cited trespassers since making the hot pots off-limits last year.
“We have a support system in this town that makes it wonderfully easy for someone to choose not to support themselves,” Wilson said. “There’s food, clothing, camping, showers, laundry, TV, computers and overnight stays when it’s cold.”
Plus, homeless people seem to be attracted to the hot pots, caves and trail systems along the rivers in and around Glenwood, he added.
There’s a huge distinction, Wilson said, between people who choose to be homeless and take advantage of charities, and those who are homeless due to unfortunate circumstances. Charities organized to help people who unexpectedly find themselves in need assistance are also enabling others to live by taking advantage of handouts, he said.
Should there be less support for the homeless? Wilson said he doesn’t have an answer to the question, but he wonders if charities could monitor how long people are getting assistance and whether they’re actually working, in order to avoid giving handouts to people who choose to be homeless.
Spencer, at Feed My Sheep, said she would not consider trying to monitor or “police” who receives services, other than to turn away people known to be violent. She acknowledged her organization probably serves some people who have gotten into trouble, but she said those people need help, too, to get moving in the right direction.
“We’re based on the need of the homeless for help,” she said. “I would not refuse to serve somebody because they got in trouble and were arrested. … They need the help. They need to be able to have a shower. They need to be able to have some food. They need a place where they can come and get stabilized, because my belief is when you stabilize, anchor and work with someone you help them to move on in other directions ” and that’s what we do.”
She said the organization works hard to teach its clients that Glenwood is a tourism community. It tells them to stay out of the downtown core, not panhandle or drink in the city.
Spencer said homeless people don’t come to Glenwood because of the charities. She said especially during times of economic hardship, it’s the jobs that bring people to town, but many of them can’t afford the high cost of housing.
“The people who come in here are not coming here because they’ve heard about us or about Glenwood,” she said.
Spencer said Feed My Sheep focuses primarily on people who have or are trying to get jobs or who can’t work due to medical problems. She said about 75 percent of the people she serves have at least part-time jobs; she estimated 10 percent are affected by alcohol to the point they can’t hold a job or it interferes with their functioning.
“My people, it’s not their choice,” she said. “It’s the high rents here.”
Tijm wonders if charities could be geared more toward teaching the homeless to provide for themselves or getting mental-health treatment to those who need it. He also said people need to stand up for themselves and help police punish individuals when a crime is committed. Too often, he said, people don’t want to get involved or bother to press charges in situations involving the homeless, such as someone being harassed.
Tijm has already spoken to a number of individuals about the issue. He plans to initiate discussions between the city, the tourism board, charities and police to analyze the situation and come up with solutions.
Christensen said nationally, treatment programs seem to be favored over programs that simply hand out services. But he’s not sure what kind of treatment is available in Glenwood, or if homeless people would want it. Some City Council members have considered discussions with local charities to see if the “self-policing” that’s said to go on among the homeless community could be increased, he added.
“A lot of people choose this as a lifestyle. If that is a choice, should there be public support to enable that lifestyle?” he said. “That’s a question that probably needs to be addressed at a policy level.”
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