When I pulled up to the Day Center yesterday, two patrol cars and three police officers had beaten me there.
The trouble turned out to be minor. A florid-faced man with white hair had come into the vestibule where other men were waiting for us to open and declared: "I gotta get out of Grand Junction. This town is full of queers."
Another of our guests took exception and gave Mr. Whitehair a slap to the back of the head. They were ordered outside and Mr. Whitehair took the opportunity to call 911, claiming his life had been threatened.
Eventually, the dust-up got settled as a mostly verbal disagreement. Neither man was taken in.
This was the second police call I've seen this year instigated by a client who couldn't settle a personal dispute. Perhaps because homeless people are subject to frequent stops for petty offenses, their own threshold for calling the cops is low.
Since I started in 2009, I can't recall the Day Center actually needing an officer on my shift, though we have called for medical assistance. I've spent hundreds of hours in close quarters with roughly a hundred homeless people at a time and not once felt unsafe.
Part of the reason is that people who come in the door will follow our rules because they appreciate our services and want a safe place to gather, but I see names on our logs also on the police blotter, so I know I'm not working in a total bubble. I'd be astonished to find a client in the room who has not had some interaction with police in the past year.
After several years of working hard to get people off the streets and into housing, the city seems to have ramped up its enforcement of crimes such as public intoxication and trespassing (which includes being in a city park after 10 pm).
It recently passed an anti-panhandling ordinance, parts of which are the subject of a suit by the ACLU. The county enacted a Public Pet Rehoming Permit ordinance last year to curb the sale of cats and dogs in public places.
While these measures purportedly address public nuisances, it's apparent that many of the offenders are also homeless people trying to make money in non-criminal ways. In effect, we are treating their condition with law enforcement.
That's more or less the point in this letter to the editor:
We have all the laws and ordinances we need to discourage what the council and [columnist] Penry consider harassment. Except one: complete removal of the homeless and undesirables from downtown. Is the panhandler ordinance another way to allow police to remove obvious uncomfortable signs of classism, poverty, alcoholism and mental illness that walk daily on our streets?
Penry asserts that “they just can’t harass the elderly or the disabled” that the ordinance defines as “at risk.” The fact is that the homeless and panhandlers are at risk, are disabled and most often afflicted with mental illness and ill-equipped to represent themselves — thus the ACLU.
There's no question homeless individuals are the subject of a disproportinate number of public safety calls—either for committing crimes, being a crime victim or simply offending someone's sensibility. But who's really at risk here?