Homeless concern Glenwood Springs Tourism Board
Glenwood Springs Correspondent
Vail CO, Colorado
GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado – Peter Tijm is looking for answers to address problems caused by some of the homeless population in Glenwood Springs.
Tijm said things like public drunkenness on buses, panhandling, harassment and a recently publicized bat-beating at a transient camp on the hills near Glenwood Springs discourage tourism and give the town a bad name. But he believes only a small portion of the homeless actually cause problems.
Tijm owns the Lavender and Thyme Bed and Breakfast and is the chairman of Glenwood’s Tourism Board. The Tourism Board sent a letter to the city last month saying it’s concerned about transients’ impacts on tourism, and the board offered to help find a solution. The letter says Tourism Board members have received complaints and letters from visitors that describe everything from being annoyed about begging and panhandling to feeling unsafe.
Tijm fears that either by word of mouth or through the media Glenwood has been glorified as a great place for homeless people to live with plentiful charities handing 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 winters with the help of charities such as Feed My Sheep, the Extended Table, LIFT-UP, Catholic Charities and the Salvation Army.
Glenwood definitely has its appeal.
There’s scenic mountain views and the hot springs that line the Colorado River known as “hot pots,” which were made officially off-limits last year after a history of problems. Glenwood’s also easy to access being on a major highway and a railroad.
“The homeless think this is better than sliced bread here,” Tijm said.
A man who goes by “Cooter” said in an April interview with the Post Independent people are “stupid” if they go hungry here because there are so many programs available here.
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’s 30 to 40 homeless in Glenwood in the winters and around 100 in the summers with additional people coming and going at different times.
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. Those people often start paying for motel rooms after facing unplanned expenses or crises. Then they get stuck, unable to pay high rental deposits, where another unfortunate event could cause them to become homeless.
Problems with the homeless
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 things like trespassing, shoplifting, drinking or urinating in public and disturbances in parks. Many of those were the same people getting arrested multiple times.
Wilson said the high number is “ridiculous” and it’s a huge drain on police resources and tax dollars. No number was immediately available for the same period over previous years, but Wilson said he knows it’s greater from his years of experience in Glenwood.
He said the homeless population is more visible in the summer, but over the winter there were a lot of complaints about homeless people riding buses for half the day, often drunk or drinking.
On Wednesday morning, he said, police responded to calls about a homeless person walking through the traffic lanes on the Grand Avenue Bridge, and another was trespassing at a hotel and harassed someone. A little over a week ago, Wilson said, a homeless man asked an off-duty police officer for $100 on the Grand Avenue pedestrian bridge downtown.
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 seeing images of 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 and the panhandling – mostly on the pedestrian bridge or Seventh Street. He said that these types of incidents are frightening for tourists and other residents.
He said some have been concerned that charities operating downtown have increased downtown panhandling. He’s unsure how valid that statement is.
But he said, “It does seem like we have a fairly large population of homeless people for a town the size of Glenwood.”
Kate Collins, the chamber’s vice president of tourism marketing, said, “Just from my perspective it seems like it’s more visible to me than the last two summers.”
The city worked to make the hot pots officially off-limits last year, and police have cited trespassers there. Glenwood also passed an ordinance prohibiting panhandling within 100 feet of intersections in 2004.
How much support should there be?
“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 attracted to the hot pots, caves and trail systems along rivers in and around Glenwood, he added.
Wilson said there’s a huge distinction between people who choose to live homeless and take advantage of charities and those who are homeless due to bad circumstances. But he said the charities helping people who really need it are also enabling others to live by taking advantage of handouts.
He said he doesn’t have a good answer to whether there should be less support for the homeless. But he wonders if charities could monitor how long people are getting served and whether they’re actually working full-time to avoid giving handouts to people who choose to live homeless.
Karolyn Spencer, associate director of Feed My Sheep, said she would not consider trying to monitor or “police” who gets to receive services other than to turn away people known to be violent. She acknowledged her organization probably does serve 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 here, and that many of them can’t afford to live here because of the extreme 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 jobs at least part time, and only 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.”
Looking for answers
Tijm wonders if charities could be geared more toward teaching the homeless to provide for themselves or getting those who need it mental health treatment. He also said people need to stand up for themselves and help police punish people for crimes, because too often people don’t want to get involved or bother to press charges in a situation such as when someone gets harassed by a homeless person.
Tijm has already talked 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 create 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 here or if homeless people would want it. He added that some city councilors have considered discussions with local charities to see if the “self-policing” that’s been said to go on among the homeless community could be increased.
“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.”
Contact Pete Fowler: 384-9121
Post Independent, Glenwood Springs Colorado CO