A group of four men — surrounded by shopping carts brimming with their personal belongings and shrouded in plastic tarps to protected the cargo from an impending rainstorm — sat in a breezeway that connects Longmont's Main Street with a parking area behind a row of businesses.
Three appeared to be sleeping, one — who had no interest in speaking with a reporter — was fiddling with a cell phone with his back propped against a breezeway wall.
On the other side of that wall was Don Jensen, owner of Jensen Guitar Company. Behind the counter inside the shop a monitor displayed video feeds from a series of security cameras, one of which is trained on the breezeway.
"They live here in this breezeway," Jensen said. "They're here every day — and my (music lesson) students and parents and children walk through there. I get complaints every single day."
"Without a question it has an impact on the business," he said, adding that customers have told him that they often park down the block to avoid walking through the breezeway. Jensen said he suspects some customers have stopped coming at all.
"It can't go on like this," he said. "Something's got to change."
A persistent challenge
Despite the strong economy both nationally and locally, hundreds of homeless people live in Boulder County.
While the precise number of homeless people living in any given community can be difficult to pin down, a 2017 survey by the Metropolitan Denver Homeless Initiative found 600 transients in Boulder County. Because that survey — known as the point-in-time count — is conducted on a single day, it may not necessarily reflect the full scope of the homeless population.
Police in Longmont arrested or cited 855 homeless or transient people in 2017. So far this year, they've arrested or cited 393 homeless people, according to data from Deputy Chief Jeff Satur.
Ronald Jones, who he has been living in Longmont parks and behind businesses on and off for about three years, said, "Doesn't matter what's going on (with the economy or the job market). There are always going to be homeless."
Jones said he has had mixed experiences with local businesses.
"Some people help out" by providing meals and occasionally items such as clothing or blankets, he said.
But some business owners are less sympathetic and will "cuss and call the cops" if they see Jones around, he said.
Studying the impact
Members of the local business community are in the process of grappling with the impacts of the issue, an extremely complex equation that combines factors such as economics, housing affordability, mental illness, addiction and family dynamics.
A cohort of the 2018 Leadership Longmont class, a Longmont Area Chamber of Commerce program aimed at educating future business leaders about issues facing the community, recently studied the intersection of homelessness and commerce.
"We just wanted to get some information that we can use as a gauge to get an initial finger on the pulse of the effect of homelessness on businesses," said Karen Stallard, the chamber's membership director and a Leadership Longmont participant.
The project, launched at the suggestion of city staff, aimed to foster more productive ways of addressing the homelessness issue, as well as provide city leaders with a better understanding of the business community's perspective on the problem.
The Leadership Longmont group assembled a homelessness resource packet for businesses. It includes information and contacts for service providers and breaks down what's legal, such as panhandling on public property, and what's illegal, such as trespassing on private property.
A survey of businesses throughout the city — which Stallard noted was not conducted by polling professionals and was not designed to trivalize homelessness into a dollars-and-cents issue — found that more than 10 percent of respondents had multiple daily interactions with homeless people they consider to be disruptive. About a third of respondents said they had at least one disruptive interaction each week.
The survey also found that most business owners were not aware of the Longmont Department of Public Safety's Affidavit of Authorization program. Property owners who sign the affidavit grant law enforcement personnel the authority to cite or arrest trespassers without that property owner being present.
"We asked businesses what methods they've used to try to reduce the disruptions," Stallard said. "The overwhelming majority (of the answers) were that (the business owner) talked to the (homeless) individual or group. In my mind, that means we need to be better about how we talk to them. If the way we're talking isn't ending the disruptions, what can we do better?"
A new approach
In Longmont, a joint venture between the city and the Longmont Downtown Development Association has provided funding to hire unarmed security officers from Trident Protection Group. Part of the purpose of dispatching those guards to the city's parks and downtown area is to make contact with members of the homeless population.
"I think (homelessness) is a growing problem along a lot of the Front Range," said Kimberlee McKee, executive director of the Longmont Downtown Development Authority. "This is something that a lot of people are dealing with and trying to come up with solutions for."
"When there are things that are happening as far as bad behaviors, that's when we hear from business owners the most," she said.
Common disruptive behaviors reported by businesses include shouting, smoking near the entrances of establishments, and intimidating or acting aggressively toward customers.
Will it work?
It's unclear whether the extra security services, which come with a nearly $30,000 price tag for 16-week pilot program, are making a difference.
What is clear is that some in the business community haven't noticed any positive momentum.
Darren Campbell — a Longmont musician and instrument repair engineer — is one of those security program skeptics.
Campbell, who himself spent a short time struggling with homelessness, said he has witnessed and documented quite a few disturbances recently. Those include a person pushing a shopping cart with a large knife sticking out of it, a man performing a lewd act on a public bench, and many incidents of public drug use.
"It's gotten really, really bad," he said. "Ignoring it isn't going to make the problem go away — but I haven't seen (Trident security personnel) anywhere around."
"As far as I can tell, they're invisible," Campbell said.
Even if the security guards were highly visible and out in force around downtown, there is no guarantee they would make a lasting dent in the homelessness problem.
In a series of internal emails between city officials sent before the launch of the security guard program, Longmont Public Safety Chief Mike Butler wrote to City Manager Harold Dominguez: "While this new group may 'patrol' certain areas of the community, it will only push the problems somewhere else in our community — I know you know that."
Following three violent incidents around city parks earlier this month, crime and safety issues within the homeless and transient population have been a focal point for Longmont leaders.
"Comparatively speaking, we live in a fantastic community," Mayor Brian Bagley told the Times-Call this week. "That said, however, I am very concerned in the increase in crime that seems to be accompanying our transient and homeless population."
Bagley said that the recent crime is "directly linked to" increased homelessness in Longmont. But he also noted that only a small percentage of those who are homeless commit crimes.
Figuring out what people need
Sean Maher, director of the Downtown Boulder Partnership, said the partnership experimented a few years ago with private security patrols in Boulder's downtown area.
"Frankly, it didn't do any good," he said. "Transients caught on pretty quickly that the guys in khakis couldn't do a whole lot to them."
Regarding Longmont's security guard program, Maher said, "The folks in Longmont didn't ask our opinion, but if they did, we would have told them that may not be the best use of their resources."
Instead, Maher suggested more engagement between businesses, transients and the police — a tactic he said has paid dividends in Boulder — could make an impact in Longmont.
Members of the Boulder Police Department's Homeless Outreach Team "are here and visible," he said. "But the focus of the team isn't to just arrest people, it's help figure out what people need."
Despite progress over the past two or three years, there are still instances of disturbances in Boulder's busy commercial areas such as the Pearl Street Mall, he said.
"The problem is not with homeless people, the problem is with bad behavior — whether it's from college students, transients, or you or me," Maher said. "Nobody gets to harass people, nobody gets to sleep in flower beds — it doesn't matter who is doing it."
Matthew McQuirk sells hats at a kiosk on the mall. He said his interactions with transients are mostly friendly.
"They usually don't bother anyone," but disturbances tend to arise when people are very intoxicated, he said.
While there have been instances when people who appear to be homeless have stolen from the kiosk, it is a rare occurrence, McQuirk said.
Will Downey, who sells outdoor gear at another kiosk just down the block, said, "For the most part, everyone gets along."
But he echoed McQuirk in saying that there are occasional disturbances.
Miguel Ramos, a Boulder man who has been sleeping in his car at night and panhandling near the mall during the day, said his experiences with employees at local businesses have been mostly positive.
"People are cool if you aren't causing problems," he said.
A compassionate community
"Boulder is a very progressive and tolerant community," Maher said, adding that stigmatizing the homeless population does nothing to help solve the problem.
"There's nothing illegal about sitting down and hanging out, or asking for help," he said. "If folks aren't engaged in any illegal behavior, there's no reason to treat them like criminals."
When Longmont's new security program was reported by the Times-Call earlier this month, Miguel Maus, a manager at The Roost on Main Street, told the newspaper, "I think that's completely absurd, to patrol a human being."
Following the report, The Roost chef and co-owner Sean Gafner took to social media to expand on the sentiment behind Maus' comments.
He expressed his appreciation for local law enforcement and the Longmont Downtown Development Authority. However, he said The Roost staff's regular conversations with the group of homeless people who spend nights behind the restaurant — "reminding them to please clean up as they go and move on by 10 a.m." — have proved effective.
"This mutual respect has worked very well for us," he wrote.
Gafner expressed concerns about the Affidavit of Authorization program.
"I wouldn't want to sign something that would belittle (anybody's) human rights," he wrote. "For this reason, I said I didn't want to sign that document."
"For us it all boils down to doing what were are here to do and that is hospitality," Gafner's post said. "... We just want to make decisions based on love rather than fear and be hospitable to all people."
Karen Mandery, co-owner of Longmont-based clothing and apparel firm BBP, expressed a similar philosophy.
She said she takes care to engage with transient people around her company's Main Street headquarters. On cold nights, she said she wishes she could leave the office unlocked to provide shelter and keep people warm.
"I try to treat people how I would want to be treated," Mandery said. "And I think there's more we can be doing as a community"
Jensen, too, said he has sympathy for those dealing with poverty, mental illness, and homelessness. But that sympathy doesn't help soften the unease his customers feel walking through a throng of people camped next to his shop.
Part of the solution
According to Stallard, businesses have an important role to play in combating not only the disturbances caused by some transients, but the also the issue of homelessness in general.
The logic, she said, is quite simple: In order to climb out of poverty and homelessness, people need to have a job. And it is local companies that provide those jobs.
Jones, who's been sleeping in his car in Boulder, said while there are services available to help the homeless meet basic needs, more resources should go toward helping people find work.
"Mostly, I just need a job," he said.
While not within the scope of Leadership Longmont's initial homelessness project, Stallard said, "We would like to find out what business would need to encourage them to hire someone who has experienced homelessness."
"Finding businesses that are willing to a part this conservation is an important piece of the puzzle."
When asked if she would consider hiring someone who had recently experienced homelessness, BBP's Mandery took a beat to consider the question.
"Yes," she said after a moment. "Yes, I would."