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As homeless population soars in Colorado, panhandling becomes more pervasive, but is it a problem?

360: What's your take on panhandling?
Posted: 3:30 PM, Nov 20, 2018
Updated: 2018-11-20 23:21:13Z

Editor's Note: Denver7 360 stories explore multiple sides of the topics that matter most to Coloradans, bringing in different perspectives so you can make up your own mind about the issues. To comment on this or other 360 stories, email us at  360@TheDenverChannel.com . See more 360 stories  here .

DENVER — In Denver and several other cities and towns across the Front Range, it's hard to find a street corner without someone asking for money.

Some people see them as beggars who should go out and get jobs, while others see them as sympathetic characters who are just trying their best to get by in a tough market for jobs and housing.

Then you have the American Civil Liberties Union, which has told Colorado towns and cities to back off and leave them alone. The ACLU says it’s their constitutional right to beg.

On one proverbial street corner, you have the ACLU fighting for panhandlers across the state, saying they have legal rights.

Venture to a different corner and you'll get a different perspective: The trash left behind, the image...it's all bad, many say, for Colorado and our tourism industry.

Down the street, homeless advocates argue this is an ethical issue, one of compassion towards our fellow man.

On a corner up the hill, a convicted felon says it's better than turning to crime.

And then there's the panhandlers themselves, many of whom say they simply need help.

Six days a week, Leon Allen makes this walk.

"I've been doing this almost 10 years now," Allen said.

This daily hustle is his version of work.

"It really helps out,” Allen said. “It really does. If I didn't have this, I'd starve, basically."

It's not how this Navy veteran ever pictured his future.

"I never imagined this life,” Allen said.

And then there are those who say the begging, the trash and the hostility of some panhandlers gives our city and our state a black eye.

"I don't usually give them money because I'm afraid they'll use it for drugs and alcohol," said one woman who works in Denver's Lower Downtown neighborhood.

Caitlin Boyd doesn't give them money either.

"No,” Boyd said. “Because I work hard for my money. They should do the same."

But Boyd added that she lives in LoDo and the number of panhandlers doesn’t really bother her.

“They leave me alone, for the most part,” Boyd said.

On the other hand, Ben Hunning says it’s a class war.

"They don't want to see poor people,” Hunning said. “It's as simple as that."

Hunning is with the non-profit Homeless Out Loud and he's frankly dismayed at how communities and towns continue to treat panhandlers.

"Every time panhandling laws get brought before the federal courts, the courts strike these laws down," Hunning said. “They are unconstitutional.

It is an issue cities and towns in Colorado and across the country have struggled with.

"As long as these antiquated ordinances remain on the books, they can be used to harass people who aren't doing anything wrong," said Mark Silverstein, spokesman with the ACLU Colorado.

The ACLU recently sent letters to 31 cities and towns in Colorado demanding they lift their bans on panhandling.

The letter states, “Your municipality…makes it a crime to 'loiter for the purpose of begging.' The ordinance not only unfairly targets poor and homeless persons whose pleas for assistance are protected by the First Amendment, but it is also legally indefensible."

So far, more than half of the cities and towns on that list have responded or promised to reevaluate their ordinances.

"That's expression that is protected by the First Amendment," Silverstein said.

The expression is no different, the ACLU argues, than the firefighter boot campaign every fall.

But many city leaders say there must be a balance.

They argue begging gives cities a black eye and there should be places — like tourist destinations and neighborhoods — that are off limits.

"What we'll have to do is find other ways to keep our community welcome, open and safe," the Boulder city attorney’s office said.

Greeley recently passed an ordinance, then changed it to a ban on only aggressive panhandling.

"Fortunately, we still have a couple ordinances that we can use,” said Greeley Chief of Police Jerry Garner.

"There are aggressive ones that ruin it for everybody," said one panhandler on Pearl Street in Boulder.

It's certainly a slippery slope.

The ACLU recently won a suit against Grand Junction which resisted repealing its panhandling ban.

"They wound up paying our court fees of $350,000," Silverstein said.

Hunning says the vast majority of panhandlers have few options because of health, physical limitations and the affordable housing crisis.

"Sixty percent of our homeless community is working, yet they still can’t afford a place to live,” Hunning said.

For Leon, it's a means to an end.

"There's like soup and crackers, fruit cocktail," he said as he pulled out a bag of snacks given to him by a church down the street. “None of it will go to waste.”

For the record, he's not homeless. Leon has a home, which is a trailer, that costs him the majority of his Social Security check.

"My rent is $650; my check is like $750," he said.

"I have $100 leftover for food, water, lights, gas." Leon said. “So, I do this, too.”

A convicted thief, he says this is a more honest way to earn a living.

"I'm actually on the corner making the money myself," Leon said. "I feel better about myself because I'm doing it honestly for once."