What is the City of Grand Junction doing to address the problem of vagrancy in our community?

Greg Caton
City Manager Greg Caton

A letter from the City Manager:

A number of community members have asked what the City of Grand Junction is doing to address the issue of destructive behavior by some individuals, most notably in and around the Downtown area and along our rivers.

There are three important points to consider as part of this discussion:

First, Grand Junction is not alone in this struggle. This is a nationwide issue right now with some areas of the country being impacted to degrees that are unimaginable. While it makes our concerns no less it is important we keep perspective on the situation.

Second, it is important to recognize that it is not illegal to be vagrant and it is not illegal to ask for money, however, there is no question that some of the behaviors and activities that we are seeing are illegal. When the law is broken, we can act, but generally speaking the mere presence of people in the parks or other public places, even if panhandling, is not illegal.

Finally, it is important to point out that being homeless is not necessarily the same as being vagrant or transient. There are numerous homeless in our community, including families with children, who are working hard with local organizations to better their situations in life, and those folks are generally not causing problems. We work closely with a number of the organizations that serve the homeless and we recognize the importance of the work they do.

Now back to the question I mentioned above. The City of Grand Junction is doing a number of things to try to address the problems we are seeing in our community, and it is a pretty comprehensive approach. I don’t have room here to get into all of the details, but some of the more significant things we have implemented include:

  • Housing – Although the City does not directly provide housing, we have indirectly supported housing by allocating millions of dollars over time through Community Development Block Grants, matching funds, fee waivers, land acquisition and in-kind assistance. This has been possible as a result of our partnerships with the Grand Junction Housing Authority, Catholic Outreach, Homeward Bound, Housing Resources and other organizations whose mission it is to provide housing for those requesting assistance.
  • Illegal camp cleanups – When we encounter illegal camp sites along the banks of our rivers or other locations in the city, there is most often not only a law enforcement issue at hand, but also a public health issue. In 2018, we have budgeted $52,000 to devote to mitigating illegal campsites. The Police Department put together a video presentation recently outlining the extensive effort that goes into a camp cleanup. Take a minute to watch it here: http://bit.ly/2FM0Mdw
  • Downtown breezeways – Recently, after receiving numerous complaints about damaging behavior in the Main Street breezeways, we elected to barricade access to one of these passages during the overnight hours in an attempt to mitigate the behavior and assess the impact. The difficulty with a measure such as this is that it inconveniences those who are not breaking the law, so we decided quickly that closing the breezeways was not going to be permanent. Instead, because the Downtown area is considered a park space, we were able to post hours of access in the breezeways thereby making it possible for law enforcement to issue citations to those using the area after the posted hours. In addition, we have applied for a grant that will allow us to make some design changes in specific locations which will make it less likely for loitering to occur, while still keeping the area attractive and open to access during daytime hours.
  • Co-Responder Grant – The Grand Junction Police Department was recently awarded a grant that will pay for a mental health worker to respond along with a police officer in situations that are known to involve mental health and/or substance abuse issues. Public safety response to calls of this nature make up a large percentage of the work that is done by not only our police department, but also our fire department. A pilot project will begin this year with the hope it can be expanded later if it is successful. Programs such as this have the potential to make a significant impact as alcohol and substance abuse is common among the vagrant population.
  • Traveler’s Aid Fund – A fund has been established, using City funds as well as some anonymous donations, that allows for police personnel to purchase, on behalf of a person needing assistance, items such as a bus ticket out of town or repairs to their car that are necessary to allow them to continue their journey to another location. Funds can also be used for someone who has agreed to enter substance abuse treatment or has a job lined up somewhere out of town, but has no way of getting there. The intent of this fund is certainly not to pay for a carefree traveler’s lifestyle but to help those in need who would benefit from moving through Grand Junction. The funds are administered for us by an independent third-party organization.
  • Music in Downtown restrooms – If you have used one of the Downtown restrooms recently, you likely couldn’t help but notice the music being piped into the facilities. You may even have found the music to be annoying, which is exactly the intent. Studies have shown that bright lights and bothersome music make it unpleasant to inhabit areas for long periods of time. We were encountering problems with individuals using the restrooms as a place to sleep or loiter and the addition of lights and music has all but brought that activity to a halt. While most of us know that restrooms are intended for a short-term visit, the music and lights have helped reinforce that fact.
  • Police patrol presence Downtown – Thanks to a partnership with the Downtown Development Authority, the Grand Junction Police Department has dedicated two full-time police officers from the Community Resource Unit to Downtown patrol. In addition to being visible, these officers build relationships with property and business owners to partner in keeping the downtown area safe, clean, and a draw for residents and visitors to Grand Junction.
  • Increase in Parks Patrol Unit – In addition to the Downtown officers, the Police Department has increased the Parks Patrol Unit. These are the officers seen on bicycles wearing bright yellow shirts. This seasonal unit, which has previously been comprised of a team of six, has been expanded and provides an added presence in City parks and along the Riverfront Trail, as well as Downtown.
  • Downtown Ambassador Program – This volunteer program runs Memorial Day to Labor Day in downtown Grand Junction. The program is administered by the City’s Parks and Recreation Department and incorporates training from Visit Grand Junction, the Downtown Development Authority, the Downtown Business Improvement District, and the Police Department. While they are intended to be an informational resource for downtown visitors, they are also just one more added official presence, as well as eyes and ears for our police officers. Ambassadors can be identified by a brightly colored polo shirt working during the daytime hours.

As you can see, the City of Grand Junction is doing a number of things in an effort to mitigate some of the problems with which our community is dealing. We have a Vagrancy Committee who meets regularly to discuss approaches to various situations, and brainstorms ways to make improvements.

Suffice it to say, the work is never complete because the problems are chronic and require involvement from many sectors of the community. We are currently looking at new community education campaigns that encourage more constructive ways for individuals who wish to donate money, as well as alternative uses for Whitman Park. As we have more information on these initiatives, we will get the word out. Thank you for your interest, and for your concern about this wonderful community.

Greg Caton, City Manager
City of Grand Junction

Contact:  Sam Rainguet, Communications Manager       970-244-1507 or samr@gjcity.org 

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