Home address: The parks of Cortez

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First of a two-part series

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Park death raises community concern

Nobody knows exactly what to call them. They aren’t synonymous with the homeless, because some of them do have places they could go if they wanted, or if they were sober. They aren’t exclusively alcoholics, though most are very heavy drinkers.

Some people call them, affectionately, “the park rangers” because they hang out in Cortez’s parks. Other citizens label them major nuisances, threats to the public, and a lot worse.

At any rate, they’re the folks who huddle on sunny benches in Cortez on wintry days. Some pass out in roadways or throw up in alleys. Some trespass and get taken to jail. Many scrounge or panhandle to collect enough money to buy a bottle of vodka for a few hours of happy giddiness. If they can’t get the money, they steal a bottle of mouthwash.

The debate over what to do about them is about as old as alcoholism. Does showing compassion encourage their bad behavior? Is it better to harass them and drive them “someplace else”? Or try to find some means of treatment that will make them into productive citizens?

The familiar debate heated up last December, when Ted Villelli, owner of Mama Ree’s Italian restaurant in Cortez, came to address the city council.

“Imagine you’re sitting in a restaurant and you and your wife are having a nice dinner, and all of a sudden you look out the window and there’s somebody either throwing up or urinating or crawling in the alley while you’re eating dinner,” he said, clearly frustrated and angry.

“How are you going to feel?”

Villelli said his business has been in its location across from City Market for two years, and during that time, drunken, smelly street people have frequently staggered around his establishment, falling down in the streets, panhandling from passersby, making crude comments.

“This is supposed to be a tourist town,” he said, echoing a sentiment shared by many citizens. “What is this representing to the people that drive through this city?”

He said the community enables the drunks by giving them the Bridge Emergency Shelter to go to. Cities such as Farmington, N.M., and Durango, Colo., take a tougher stance and thus don’t have such a problem, he said.

“Make it annoying for them to come to this city,” he urged. “Have the police go on full patrol and every time they’re sitting there, tell them that they have to move on, they cannot be there.

“They’re degrading our city.”

Villelli added, “It’s a nuisance and I really feel the city must take a stand.”

‘Not a pretty sight’

But is the solution really so simple? City officials say no.

Police Chief Roy Lane said the city already sends plenty of such miscreants to jail. Last year it spent $130,000 or so to incarcerate people in the county detention facility for municipal offenses. About a third of those arrests involved crimes related to substance abuse and loitering in the parks.

There’s a group of about two dozen people with which the city deals constantly, he said. For many years they were the same folks, but some of those old-timers have died and some new ones have taken their place. “I think our homeless population, for lack of a better word, seems to be a little younger, and we’re seeing more Navajos than in the past,” Lane said.

But he doesn’t believe the crowd now necessarily represents a major influx of miscreants drawn here by the emergency shelter.

Lane said it’s a little misleading to compare Cortez’s situation with a city such as Durango, a college town with a very different sort of problem with intoxication. As far as Farmington and Gallup, they have cracked down on the sale of certain types of liquor in markets and convenience stores, and do have some tougher policies, but New Mexico has different laws to enable such practices, Lane said.

Lane has worked in border towns adjoining the Navajo reservation for 42 years and doesn’t believe Cortez’s situation is worse than most other such municipalities’. Nor does he think the situation is necessarily worse now than in years past.

“I don’t see any more problems than we’ve dealt with from year to year,” he said.

And although citizens worry about street people harassing and maybe even accosting passersby, Lane said the bench-sitters pose far more of a danger to themselves than to anyone else, sometimes getting into drunken squabbles that result in assaults.

“As far as them being a hazard to anybody walking down the street, well, they’re not a pretty sight to see but though they may ask for money, in my opinion they’re not a hazard to the general public. If they get off by themselves where the public doesn’t see them we don’t have that many issues.”

Police reports rarely if ever document complaints that ordinary people have been seriously threatened by the street folks.

Looking for answers

The city is always looking for solutions, according to City Manager Jay Harrington. Following Villelli’s comments, city councilors tried to brainstorm new ideas.

The city, at the request of City Market, has since removed two benches that sat along Main Street in front of the store because they had become a place for street people to hang out. They had spurred complaints, partly because some were “getting a little frisky” on the benches, Lane said delicately.

The city is offering a refresher class for liquor-store and bar owners on laws regarding liquor sales. And the city attorney is examining the legalities involved in dealing with habitual drunks – for instance, would it be legal to compile a list of such folks to discourage liquor stores from selling to them?

“There’s a fine line there involving people’s rights and how you declare someone ‘habitual’,” Harrington said.

One of the touchy issues involved in the question of Cortez’s street people is that many are Native American – usually Ute or Navajo – and that any policy of “harassing” them to make them move on raises questions of racism as well as violations of rights in general.

“We get watched with a fairly close microscope from the state civil-rights commission,” Harrington said at the Dec. 9 council meeting.

Both the Ute Mountain Ute and Navajo reservations are “dry,” meaning liquor is not allowed to be sold or possessed, so those nation’s residents who want to drink drift into border towns. In contrast, non-Indians can drink in their homes rather than in parks and public places.

Public intoxication by itself is not a crime in Colorado. “Colorado treats it more as a disease, so we can’t run out and pass an ordinance against public drunkenness,” Harrington said. However, possessing booze in Cortez’s parks is a municipal offense.

The street drunks brought to jail are apprehended for other offenses, usually minor, such as trespassing, lewd conduct, or disturbing the peace, which requires a complainant.

The offenders themselves are often aware of their rights and resentful of being told to move on when all they are seeking is a warm, comfortable place to sit in a boozy stupor. One Native American man, when cited for trespassing near City Market, reportedly said indignantly, “They say I’m trespassing – well, they’ve been trespassing for 300 years!”

It should be noted that though most of Cortez’s “hard-core” street people are habitual drinkers, others who hang out on benches or in parks have mental illnesses or addictions to drugs besides alcohol.

“People call it a public drunkenness issue, but it’s much more,” Harrington said. “How do we deal with an entire population base that kind of slips through the cracks?”

Providing shelter

The problem is certainly not unique to Cortez, but it takes different forms in different cities, Harrington added. Even in upscale Telluride, where he worked as city manager, “we had the woodsies who lived in the woods all summer” and had to be evicted by the Forest Service.

And metropolises such as Denver have an enormous homeless population. Harrington said he visited there recently and saw a long line waiting outside the shelter – everyone ranging from teens to the elderly.

There seems to be less of a problem along the Navajo Nation border in southeast Utah, but that’s likely because Utah’s liquor sales are strictly controlled, confined to bars, private clubs and stateowned liquor stores. In San Juan County, the only liquor store is in Monticello, far north of the reservation boundary.

Cortez spends “a fair amount of its resources” dealing with the issue. Not only the police, but the parks and library staff have to manage and clean up after street folks.

And although there are citizens like Villelli who believe the Bridge Emergency Shelter, a volunteer-supported overnight shelter that operates during the winter months, merely “enables” heavy drinkers, most lawenforcement officials and civic leaders say the shelter has been a blessing because, in addition to helping the homeless, it provides a safe place for drunks to sleep. The alternatives are to let them freeze to death outdoors or find an excuse to jail them – which costs about $50 a night vs. some $17 or so per client in the shelter.

“It helps us because if we have a non-combative person who is out on their luck, there’s a place to take them,” said Montezuma County Sheriff Gerald Wallace, a member of the shelter board.

“The shelter is a wonderful thing for us,” said Lane, also a board member. “It gives us some relief. Otherwise they either end up dying or being in places where they don’t need to be. In years past they used to be in the post office at night.”

“The shelter does an incredible job with the limited resources it has,” Harrington said. “I think everyone should be able to sleep inside and not be exposed to the elements.

“Does it enable bad behavior patterns? Possibly, but isn’t it humane and necessary? I wouldn’t serve on its board if I didn’t think so.”

Cortez gives $6,000 a year to the shelter from its police-department budget, and Montezuma County provides the use of the facility, including maintenance and utilities. The county has also pledged land to build a new facility if that should become possible.

Some critics say the tribes should do more, since it’s their members who cause many of the problems.

The Ute Mountain Ute tribe has contributed $19,000 to the shelter as well as a full-time case manager to help treat any clients, not just Utes. However, the Navajo Nation has yet to step forward.

The shelter’s clients certainly include drinkers, but it also provides a haven for plenty of sober, temporarily homeless folks who are just trying to save money to get their own place. Other clients live in places like Cahone and can’t afford transportation to their jobs in Cortez every day.

So there seems to be widespread agreement that the shelter is a good thing, a feeling verified by the support it receives from average citizens as well as public officials, both through monetary donations and volunteer service.

But that leaves the problem of the street people – because they are, indeed, a problem for owners of certain businesses, in particular City Market and Wal-Mart. Besides merely hanging around outside and startling customers who aren’t familiar with them, the street people throw up, shoplift, urinate in public and create concerns about health and safety.

“I have sympathy for the [business] folks,” Lane told the city council. “City Market has always been the place where these people gather.”

The problem is clear but the answer is not, he said.

“I won’t deny there’s an issue. If there was a way to get rid of that issue, I would love to do that. Unless we have some other tool with which to do this, we will continue to fight the fight and do the best we can.”

M.B. McAfee, chair of the Bridge board, said the board is always struggling to find ways to do more than just house people.

“If people are urinating around his [Villelli’s] business and causing problems, I’m so sorry,” she said. “That’s just awful. We are always trying to find ways to improve what we do.”

Next month: Some different perspectives on the street people and the opportunities – or lack thereof – for treatment.

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From March 2009.