COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. - A 90-minute public forum on the homelessness issue attracted more than 300 people Wednesday night in Colorado Springs.
The forum was sponsored by the Colorado Springs Gazette and held at The Pinery on West Bijou Street.
"I can't believe how many people are here," a woman said. "The parking lot is full. It's standing room only. They're starting late to allow more people to get in. They're even sitting on the floor."
A seven-member panel included Mayor John Suthers, Colorado Springs police and several homeless advocates.
The purpose of the meeting was to gather public feedback about the best ways to address homelessness, and update the community about what measures have been taken and what still needs to be done.
"Government can't do the job alone," Suthers said. "We need your help and understanding."
Tryg Bundgaard, of the Coalition for Compassion and Action and Blackbird Outreach, asked the audience to be realistic.
"We all have biases about the homeless," he said. "We need to admit that, face it and deal with it. I've found those biases fade away once you meet many of these people."
Aimee Cox, of Community Health Partnership, and a former homeless expert with the city, said the community has added more shelter beds but needs more, and that more affordable housing is needed.
"The challenges are that affordable housing is expensive," she said. "And people don't want those projects in their neighborhoods. We've got to talk about how to make those projects more appealing."
Lt. Mike Lux, of the Police Department, issued a reminder that has been repeated by homeless advocates for years.
"I know that not everyone who panhandles is homeless," he said. "But if you want to get rid of panhandlers, stop giving them money. Give money to the agencies that help the homeless."
The audience responded with generous applause.
"It's going to take more time and more money," said Beth Roalstad, of Homeward Pikes Peak. "We've made progress. I know it's hard to see sometimes when we still see camps and panhandlers. But we're all working together to address this problem."
Suthers said he's concerned about the revelation this week that Monument Creek near downtown has high levels of E. coli bacteria, most likely from human waste at illegal creekside camps.
"I'm going to ask the City Council to amend our no-camping ordinance to ban camping along the banks of waterways," he said.
Earlier in the day, several homeless people offered their ideas on addressing homelessness.
"Treat us with kindness, respect and dignity," said Jeremy Packer. "Sometimes, the shelters treat us the worst. They go through our bags and throw things away. They act like we're in prison. We can't say much about it because we want a bed for the night. It's overkill."
A homeless man riding his bicycle with his dog in tow wants more shelter beds.
"We need more places where I can bring my dog," he said. "Most of the shelters don't allow pets. And maybe propane donations. I'm on the street right now because I'm out of propane for my camper and it's too cold to stay there. I don't have money because I'm disabled and can't work."
During the public forum, Suthers ruled out establishing a campground for the homeless, saying it wouldn't work because it would be too large, too costly and pose too many problems.
"A lot of people have asked me about a campground but around the country it's been proven they're not a good idea," he said.
Some of the panelists said some local agencies have programs that provide jobs to the homeless, and they hope to expand those programs in the future.