Longmont Police, Nonprofits Hopeful Private Security Patrols Can Help with Homeless Issues
Both Longmont police and local nonprofit organizations say the private security officers scheduled to begin patrolling downtown this week are “needed” as the city continues to grapple with its rising homeless population.
However, both groups also recognized that the long-term solution must be found in stabilizing those who are experiencing homelessness, rather than just displacing them.
The unarmed security officers from Trident Protection Group, slated to begin patrolling Monday, will operate in the downtown area, and in some city parks and greenways, as the “Longmont Welcoming Spaces Outreach Team.” They won’t have authority to arrest or ticket anyone.
The new program is a joint venture between the city and the Longmont Downtown Development Association, and the two entities are splitting the $29,440 cost for the 16-week service over the summer.
Longmont police Deputy Chief Jeff Satur compared today’s issues surrounding homelessness with the war on drugs in the 1990s.
“We know we can’t arrest our way out of this problem and that the criminal justice system is not properly equipped to address this issue,” Satur said in an email. “We know we cannot address the issues of homelessness alone, yet we are continuously tasked with addressing this issue.”
Satur cited data to show the strain that the homeless and transient population place on the Longmont Public Safety Department, though he emphasized that he believes only a portion of the population causes these issues, while many others participate in programs to reach stability.
In 2017, police responded to 6,146 welfare checks, many of which he said were for people passed out in parks, on benches and in walkways.
Police also arrested or cited 855 homeless or transient people in 2017. So far this year, they’ve arrested or cited 393 homeless people.
Emergency response services also are affected, he said. In 2017, the fire department responded to 657 calls for medical issues involving homeless people. More than 550 of those people were taken to the hospital.
The city itself is also bearing costs. In 2017, Longmont spent $35,937 to clean up homeless camps, according to Sandra Seader, assistant city manager. So far this year, it has spent at least $6,730.
“We need help,” Satur said. “It’s running our cops, our police officers, ragged.”
Edwina Salazar, executive director of the OUR Center, which provides services to the needy, said she thinks police need more support as well. She also hopes the extra contact with the homeless will help more of them seek support.
“It sounds like it’s going to be a means of establishing relationships with people that are homeless and, for those of them that are willing to engage in the services that are available, this creates a conduit for that,” Salazar said.
‘Hand-up’ vs. ‘hand-out’
Police are concerned, however, that this new program will only displace those experiencing homelessness from the downtown area to other parts of the city.
The security officers are set to patrol the Longmont Downtown Development Area, as well as Roosevelt Park, Thompson Park, Collyer Park, the St. Vrain Greenway and the Lefthand Greenway.
Satur also believes that services and individuals have to hold those experiencing homelessness accountable for what they receive, by providing more “hand-ups” and less “hand-outs.”
He recalled a number of situations where he saw either individuals or programs give those experiencing homelessness food or money, without engaging them to do anything in return.
This pattern brings “an issue into our community,” he said, as some people — likely a “small number,” he said — don’t want to participate and abuse these services, as well as the community. For example, Satur described seeing people sleeping outside businesses with signs of feces on his morning runs.
The larger question is, he said, how to get those people to engage and reach stability, or stop abusing the community.
‘A welcoming to the community’
Salazar agrees that those who receive something from the community should give back.
“It is, in a sense, a welcoming to the community,” she said. “This is a community, you’re welcome to be part of it, but there are some responsibilities.”
The OUR Center, she said, doesn’t provide “free-flowing” services. Those who participate in its services have to sign up and prove residency, and also start an action plan. Most aren’t homeless, though their housing may not be stable.
“Giving things out without some expectation or some plan is not our goal,” Salazar said.
When asked if the money spent on the security officers — nearly $30,000 — would be better spent on funding more beds for the homeless, Salazar said the city is focused on Boulder County’s coordinated entry program that strives to get people to stable housing versus a shelter.
“A lot of funds and research” have gone into creating that system, she said, and now the data from that is needed to determine “what resources should go to helping the nonprofits.”
Lisa Searchinger, executive director of HOPE, or Homeless Outreach Providing Encouragement, said that everyone living in Longmont “needs to feel safe and have their needs taken care of,” and if the city feels this is a need that isn’t being addressed, she understands their decision to fund it.
The nonprofit HOPE also has changed its street outreach to focus more on getting people into the county’s coordinated entry program , and then into stable housing, according to Searchinger.
“But,” she said, “providing basic needs is a basic human right.”
Searchinger also said she believes it’s a natural instinct for people to want to give back, but it’s difficult when they’re in crisis.
“The notion that people in this community are not engaged is a very complicated dynamic,” she said. “When you’re in crisis, it’s difficult to think beyond getting your basic needs met.”
However, she is optimistic that the security officers will serve as another opportunity for the vulnerable to get connected to services.
“Just smiling and saying hello to somebody who’s living on the margin and feels dehumanized can make all the difference in the world sometimes,” she said. “The more people out there to engage, talk, support, the better.”
‘Another set of eyes and ears’
Trident Protection Group, created in 2016, is a sister company to Trident Security, which was founded 30 years ago, said Paul Ballenger, chief operations officer for the protection group.
The company has provided security for businesses, government housing, concerts, private events and more, he said, adding that they try to stay “flexible.”
In Longmont’s downtown, the unarmed officers plan to act more as ambassadors and less as security. They’ll help people with parking, finding businesses and providing resources to those who are homeless, Ballenger said.
“Some of it’s still in development because it’s a totally new project for the city and for us,” he said.
Ballenger said his employees should be in the area most days of the week, but did not yet have any set times. As the officers get a feel for the area and its needs, the company will solidify a schedule.
According to Kimberlee McKee, executive director of the Longmont Downtown Development Authority, the city started looking to hire someone to “help with City Parks and Greenways.” The authority coordinated with city officials to start the pilot program for ambassadors, which she said has been successful for other downtowns.
The costs between the city and the business authority will be split based on the amount of time the officers spend in the downtown development district. McKee said the authority also is budgeting $11,000 for the initial summer months. The program will be re-evaluated after three months, she said.
According to McKee, downtown businesses have been asking “to have another set of eyes and ears on the street” for years. She said their goals with the service are to provide information to visitors, remind them of smoking ordinances, help them find parking and connect those in need with services.
Homelessness is ‘part of the world’
Local businesses and residents differed on their opinions of the program.
Miguel Maus, a Longmont resident for 18 years and a manager at The Roost on Main Street, said hiring private security seemed “ridiculous” and “like a waste of expenses.”
“I think that’s completely absurd, to patrol a human being,” he said. ”...That doesn’t sound like Longmont.”
Maus said he believes there has been a rise in the city’s homeless population, but “it’s not like it’s a scourge on our city.”
A group of homeless people hangs around the restaurant at night, he said, and he’s told them as long as they treat it with respect, he’ll treat them with respect. He hasn’t had any issues, he said.
“It’s part of the world,” Maus said.
Joy Lawley, the manager of EZ Pawn on Main Street, said she’s had problems with some homeless people.
Sometimes they’ll come in and loiter, she said. One man came in and played music from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m. one day, she said, but now they just move him along quickly.
The store also has to be careful if someone who is homeless is trying to sell things, Lawley said, as the shop could be liable if the items are stolen.
There have also been some thefts, she said, including seats off the bicycles they line up outside, and one bike stolen.
Lawley thinks the extra patrols are a good idea, but she also said it would beneficial if the city could help get those experiencing homelessness “a place to stay, or get on their feet.”
Other businesses reported little or no problems.
Todd Johnson, the manager at Mike O’Shays Restaurant & Ale House on Main Street, said in rare instances people will stop and interact with diners sitting out under the awning on the sidewalk.
A few minutes earlier, he said a woman was “not harassing” the diners, but he had to ask her to “move on.”
The restaurant is next to the breezeway, where Johnson said he has seen five or six people sleeping in the mornings. A few years ago, the restaurant would leave the door open for people to come in and use the bathroom, but stopped that practice when toilet paper was stolen.
While the issue of homelessness doesn’t directly affect the restaurant, Johnson said he thinks it’s an issue for the city.
Madeline St. Amour: 303-684-5212, email@example.com