Fort Collins divided over controversial sit-lie ban

Rachel Telljohn

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A proposed City ordinance has garnered public attention and controversy over the past month due to its perceived attack on the homeless in Fort Collins.

Many are calling the drafted ordinance a “sit-lie ban,” because it will prohibit lying on sidewalks, leaving property unattended or reclining on benches. Many feel the ordinance will unfairly favor business owners or business-goers and will target the downtown area’s homeless population.

A similar ban was proposed in 2015, but an initiative called Outreach Fort Collins, a community driven initiative for downtown, was enacted by the City instead, along with an increase in police resources. The City was then opposed to an outright ban, and the outreach was a way to compromise.

The new ordinance has been in the works since the start of the year; beginning in February, the City began to look for input on it from the community.

The City held two external opportunities for community members to learn more about the new ordinance or to voice opinions during the month of February – the city held an early-morning coffee chat and an evening open house.

An online survey, which closed Thursday night, was open to everyone and allowed for comments or opinions. The city had already received hundreds of pages of commentary at the time of the open house Thursday evening.

The ordinance

City officials have cited much of the ordinance as feedback received over the summer of 2016 largely from downtown business owners and from visitors to the downtown area.

The draft of the ordinance, as it stands now, would regulate three uses of public space, which many feel is a splitting of hairs between the ordinance proposed and what constitutes a sit-lie ban.

Sitting or lying on sidewalks would not be allowed. This includes any plaza, square or planter. The concern from the city is that if an individual is lying on a sidewalk, it makes a storefront unapproachable or obstructs the sidewalk in a manner so that passersby cannot get through.

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Jeff McKissack sits on a Fort Collins plaza at a protest against the proposed ordinance Friday afternoon. McKissack said he used to be homeless, and now brings his humorous personality and food for the homeless community still in need. (Julia Trowbridge | Collegian)

The ordinance would also prohibit leaving personal property unattended. City officials have said this would mean no more property than what an individual is able to carry with them. This regulation stems from a concern for the use of public spaces for something other than their intended purpose, according to the City.

Reclining or lying on a bench or chair would also be prohibited. One of the areas the city is concerned about is the garden planters throughout downtown. During the open house last Thursday, pictures were presented showing trampled planters that had presumably been used as benches.

One of the more contentious aspects to the ordinance, which would have restricted an individual to one hour of sitting on a public bench, was struck from the ordinance by City Council last Tuesday.

City concerns

While the common criticism is that the ordinance unfairly targets the homeless population, Ray Martinez of the City Council and other City officials have continuously cited behaviors witnessed downtown as the issue, not whether the person exhibiting those behaviors is homeless.

“I don’t believe in making laws that are based on a person’s station in life,” Martinez said.

Martinez was one of the members to promote striking the one hour piece to the ordinance, which he felt was too much of a reach.

Lieutenant Jerrod Kinsman of the Fort Collins Police Department said even homeless people are concerned about the prolonged use of benches in Fort Collins – he said members of the homeless population have told him they were unable to sit on a bench to rest for a little while because of prolonged bench occupation.

“None of this is designed to exclude homeless people from downtown,” Kinsman said.

Protesters occupy Fort Collins City Hall during a City Council Work Session in which Compassion and Consequences: Disruptive Behavior Solutions was being discussed. (Elliott Jerge | Collegian)

Jeff Mihelich, deputy city manager, presented at the open house last Thursday and said the City is concerned about the impact of downtown behaviors on local businesses.

“(Current behaviors don’t) create a vibrant business environment,” Mihelich said.

Concerns were raised at the coffee chat and the open house about levels of enforcement from police, including how enforcement might relate to costs for tax payers and the City.

“I don’t foresee (the ordinance) as being a big cost for (the City),” Mihelich said. “I don’t see us actually arresting someone for violating this ordinance.”

Mihelich reiterated at the the coffee chat and the open house what Martinez had said: that the ordinance is designed to address behaviors and not any one specific population.

Public concerns

Despite the City claiming that behaviors are the target of the ordinance, community members are still concerned the ordinance will unfairly target the homeless.

Mihelich said that the City has heard “no way,” as a general response from the community. Citizens dissented via the online survey, the two public talks and even through City Council, prompting the removal of the one hour bench regulation.

Last Thursday evening, the night of the open house, was icy and cold, but over 70 community members turned out to participate in a condensed version of the online survey. Community members also had the opportunity to write opinions about the ordinance on large posters as the meeting concluded.

The coffee chat a week prior also saw a larger turn out than the City anticipated, despite the early hour.

Despite snowy weather, the Fort Collins Homeless Coalition hosted a sit-in titled Sit Happens Friday afternoon in a show of support for the homeless and to protest the ordinance.

James DeBonis said that he will fight the Sit- Lie Ban for the rest of his life. (Julia Trowbridge | Collegian)

James DeBois, former military, was part of Friday’s sit-in, even though he has only been in town for a month. DeBois described the ordinance as only serving the self-interest of the City and that similar ordinances, or bans, have not worked elsewhere.

“I fought so that we have the freedoms we have. Exercise the right to sit where you want,” DeBois said.

Skyler Gibler was also at the sit-in. Gibler is homeless because of multiple back surgeries, rendering him unable to work.

“I came over (to the sit-in) to see my friends and be supportive,” Gibler said.

Jeff McKissack, another sit-in attendee, laid on the sidewalk in open defiance of what the proposed ordinance would prohibit.

“(The ordinance) is just the vaguest of bases (on which to discriminate or prohibit behaviors),” McKissack said.

In the week prior to the sit-in, the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado released a letter declaring the proposed ordinance absurd and unconstitutional.

At the open house last Thursday, Mihelich responded to a question about the letter saying that it would neither be read, nor would questions pertaining to it be answered.

The ordinance will be voted on next Tuesday, March 7, at the City Council meeting open to the public.

Another sit-in is planned for the same day, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Those interested are asked to occupy the benches in Old Town, specifically those surrounding City Hall.

Collegian reporter Rachel Telljohn can be reached at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @racheltelljohn.