Citizens protest anti-homelessness legislation outside City Council

Gabriel Go

Standing in front of the Fort Collins City Hall in frigid January weather, a little over 20 Fort Collins citizens held a demonstration in protest against a set of proposed policies deemed to be discriminatory against the city’s homeless population during a City Council work session on Tuesday night.

The proposed policies are collectively referred to as the “Compassion and Consequences Proposal.” The proposal seeks to introduce a series of measures meant to address issues with homelessness in Fort Collins. There are four policies outlined in the Compassion and Consequences Proposal.

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The first proposal would reserve three year-round jail beds with the Larimer County Jail for repeat offenders of the Fort Collins Municipal Code, which are petty non-violent offences that result in low-level citations. According to the City Council agenda, the city has had difficulty in “stopping certain individuals” from violating the Municipal Code, despite an increased police presence in downtown Fort Collins.

The document also says that although police officers are able to cite offenders, the jail’s current capacity has decreased the available bed space for Municipal Code offenders.

Furthermore, the document states that “(City Council) staff (are) excited about this agreement, as they believe that this will give the City a tool to impose consequences on those individuals who consistently fail to meet community expectations and follow our laws.”

The second proposal would prohibit sitting, reclining and lying in places in the downtown area. These include public sidewalks and plazas between 9:00 a.m. and 2:00 a.m., objects designed for sitting such as benches or chairs, public restrooms with the exception of toilets, and on objects not designed for sitting such as drinking fountains or bicycle racks. This proposal also prohibits sitting on a bench for more than one hour.

Personal property would also be prohibited to be stored in the right-of-way citywide, and would also be barred from being left unattended in public spaces. Exceptions to the proposed ordinance include vendors, public performers, children in play areas, and those experiencing a medical emergency.

The third proposal seeks to discourage panhandling to individuals by promoting a program meant to encourage donations to charities directly. The program is called “Give Real Change,” and is slated to launch in the spring.

The program is the brainchild of the Downtown Business Association and consists of two major parts: a public awareness campaign and the establishment of a community fundraising model where donations from citizens or businesses go directly to social service professionals.

The final proposal seeks to introduce more surveillance cameras in the downtown area, with the intention of deterring crime.

The proposals were met with pushback from members of the Fort Collins community, particularly the Fort Collins Homeless Coalition. Around 20 people attended the protest, with chants such as “Homeless rights are under attack! What do we do? Rise up fight back!” chorusing on the steps of City Hall.

According to Lynn Thompson, a protest organizer and member of the Fort Collins Homeless Coalition, homelessness has been on the rise nationwide due to a lack of federal funding in public housing.

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“We see that here locally just as much anywhere else. Fort Collins certainly isn’t unique in struggling how to do deal with that,” Thompson said. “One of the things that the Fort Collins Homeless Coalition has been working against… (are) measures that criminalize people from being homeless.”

As the City Council meeting was a work session, members of the public were not able to make comments, although they were welcome to observe Deputy City Manager Jeff Mihelic and Police Lieutenant Mike Trombley present the Compassion and Consequences Proposal

“We really rolled up our sleeves, dug deep inside, (and asked) ‘what can we do to address the challenges that we’re having?’” Mihelic said.

“This program is not about restricting panhandling in anyway,” Mihelic clarified with regards to the third proposal on panhandling. However, Mihelic cites a number of instances in which panhandling resulted in violent behaviour.

“The concept is to flip it upside down, and say to people… ‘instead of giving money directly to panhandlers, is instead to give money to social services,” Mihelic said.

Councilman Ray Martinez voiced his opinions on the proposal.

“I don’t want to create (a law) that targets a specific element of our community just because of their station in life,” Martinez said. “From my perspective, that’s tantamount to trying to segregate people. We got away from that in the sixties, (but) that’s just my viewpoint.”

The council eventually directed their staff to move forward on the proposals regarding increased surveillance and the Real Change initiative. The other two proposals regarding the sit-lie ban and jail beds are expected to return in future City Council meetings.

Cheryl Distasio, coordinator for the Fort Collins Community Action Network and affiliate of the Homeless Coalition said that her group plans on attending the upcoming meetings.

“We’re going to regroup and then we’re going to have our own timeline,” Distasio said. “I’m sure that we’ll be here for public comment.”

According to a 2015 article by the Coloradoan, the city of Fort Collins was sued by the Colorado branch of the American Civil Liberties Union over a law which punishes panhandling. The ACLU filed the class-action lawsuit on behalf of four homeless citizens representing “all others similarly situated,” the Coloradoan wrote.

The city’s website currently states that while panhandling is legal within the city, it is prohibited if done “in a manner that is threatening, intimidating, coercive or obscene.” According to The Coloradoan, the lawsuit says that city police have enforced the policy so broadly that it was similar in effect to prohibiting panhandling completely.

Collegian Reporter Gabriel Go can be reached at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @rgabrielgo.