Posted at 10:55 a.m., April 20, 2016

Homeless facing bans on panhandling

Current movements try to put restrictions on beggars

Recently cities and towns along the Front Range area have been passing laws pertaining to homeless people and homelessness in general. Denver, Fort Collins, Colorado Springs and Casper have recently passed laws that target the homeless populations. The Cheyenne City Council has already set up panhandling zones where homeless people are legally allowed to panhandle.

The city cannot ban panhandling everywhere because it is considered freedom of speech and is therefore covered by the First Amendment. But the Cheyenne City Council is still looking into further laws that would target the homeless population and potentially be more detrimental to them.

Many critics of the laws say they hurt the homeless and in turn everyone else that has to follow those laws. Two Colorado cities have had legal action taken against them for laws they passed.

Colorado takes action

In 2012, Grand Junction, Colorado, passed aggressive laws to remove the homeless from certain areas of the city. The ban included restrictions on panhandling at night, panhandling within 100 feet of an ATM, panhandling at bus stops and panhandling on a public bus or in a public parking facility. The American Civil Liberties Union sued Grand Junction over the ordinance in 2012, then in 2013 U.S. District Judge Christine M. Arguello deemed the law too broad and unconstitutional.

Fort Collins passed similar laws to keep panhandlers out of its Old Town area. The ACLU also sued Fort Collins. Fort Collins settled with the ACLU, paying a hefty sum of $82,500 in legal fees and $100 to each of three homeless people that sought damages because of the laws.

Denver and Colorado Springs were also ordered to stop enforcing panhandling bans until they were amended to fit the new standards set by Arguello.

City laws against homeless

Cheyenne City Councilman Rich Johnson said Cheyenne does not currently have any vagrancy laws, but police find ways around that law to arrest the homeless whether they are causing trouble or not.

“Cheyenne has no vagrancy laws,” Johnson said. “The police can’t arrest the homeless people for loitering. They get around the laws by citing the homeless for public intoxication or disturbing the peace.”

Johnson also said there are not many options for the homeless other than the COMEA House or panhandling. Robin Zimmer, executive director of the COMEA House, said they have limited room and can only allow so many people in per day. Currently the COMEA House can shelter 58 men, 12 women and three families. There are also 12 transitional living apartments for individuals who require more support.

Zimmer said she believes substance abuse is at the core of many homeless peoples’ problems and more social programs need to be put in place to help them.

In 2012, the Cheyenne Police Department organized the Homeless Empowerment Action Team. The group spent three months addressing and analyzing homelessness in downtown Cheyenne. The first priority for the police was to help those in need but officers were also instructed to “reasonably enforce the local ordinances.”

Public intoxication was the ordinance most often violated (57 of 142 crimes) while unlawful entry (27 of 142 crimes) was second, according to the report.

Zimmer said it is policy for the COMEA House to regularly check crime reports to see if COMEA residents are getting arrested, but only 10 percent of COMEA residents have actually been cited for committing crimes.

Zimmer said she does not believe passing more laws targeting the homeless will actually help them, and the best way to help them is for the police, social services and downtown business owners to establish better communication lines among each other.

Zimmer said that Cheyenne residents should donate to social programs if they want to help the homeless. She also said that Cheyenne residents should not give panhandlers money and COMEA residents are not allowed to panhandle.