Colorado Springs Residents Question Motives Behind Panhandling Ordinance

After a federal judge in Grand Junction ruled in 2015 that pan-handling is an expression of speech and protected by the First Amendment, the Colorado Springs City Council recently decided to move forward with the ordinance to “keep people off unsafe medians” or face fines of up to $2,500 and jail time of up to six months. The council decision was unanimous, and is a reflection of public sentiment about the issue.

Hops and Marley sit waiting for a ride to Denver to find a job. Photo by Nina Riggio

“We have heard an over-whelming concern from drivers in our city about the safety of pedestrians standing on narrow or sloped medians, and the distraction and safety concern they pose to passing traffic. That, along with input from our public safety professionals, was the driving factor behind this effort,” explained a statement put out by the Colorado Springs Public Communications Specialist.

The ordinance was originally proposed last October by Mayor John Suthers, and would apply to panhandlers, pamphlet distributors, vendors, and the like. This law would ban people from standing on or occupying medians less than four feet wide and on streets with traffic moving faster than 30 miles per hour. Suthers said that pedestrians on narrow medians jeopardize their lives and distract drivers.

But critics argue the motivations behind the law are not so straightforward. “Don’t be fooled by this law, it isn’t about our safety, this is about screwing over the homeless,” said Hops, a local houseless man. “Why make people pay a fine of $500 when you know we don’t have that.”

Helen Collins of the Colorado Springs City Council expressed her concern that panhandlers would form businesses and work in shifts to eventually split the money as a group. In 2001, a survey con-ducted by the Canadian Medical Association on panhandlers’ income and spending patterns in Toronto found that 70 percent would prefer a minimum-wage job over panhandling. The median monthly in-come from panhandling was found to be $300. In 2013, researchers in San Francis-co surveyed 146 panhandlers and found that most make less than $25 per day. The survey also found that 94 percent spent that money on food.

Trygge Bundgaard of the Coalition for Compassion and Action, an activism and outreach organization, called out councilors to acknowledge that, although in theory the ordinance could apply to any pedestrian, it’s really aimed at poor people. “Why are we fining people who are out there to get money?” he asked during the City Council meeting. “Stop trying to legislate away poverty instead of putting programs in place that actually help people.”

Other critics point out the similarities between this newest ordinance and the Pedestrian Access Act that was passed last year. Both are viewed by the houseless as ways in which the Colorado Springs City Council is trying to silence and re-strict the poor community. The council maintains this is not the case and stresses the improvements in public safety that the ‘median access act’ will bring for drivers and professors alike.

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