An unfortunate reality

Homeless population in Cortez can have negative impacts

The Bridge Emergency Shelter is open at night starting at 6 p.m., but during the day many of the homeless spend time in the city parks. Enlargephoto

Sam Green/Cortez Journal

The Bridge Emergency Shelter is open at night starting at 6 p.m., but during the day many of the homeless spend time in the city parks.

A local homeless man with a medical condition shoplifts on a consistent basis, but he's seen very little jail time.

Stormy John has been arrested numerous times in the past couple of months, though he has rarely been incarcerated because of the colostomy bag he needs to carry.

According to a Nov. 30 Cortez Police report John is "being cited and released over and over and continues to terrorize the local stores."

Also on Nov. 30, in a second police report, the same man was in Walmart where he attempted to take a pair of boots, a hat and work jacket without paying for them.

He also was arrested on Nov. 29 for destroying merchandise at Big R when his colostomy bag leaked on merchandise, and for the theft of two belts.

John is one of a handful of homeless people well known to Cortez police.

The city of Cortez and the Cortez Chamber of Commerce agree that the area's homeless population seems to be holding steady.

City Manager Shane Hale said there has not been a spike in petty crimes such as shoplifting. These cases are handled by the city's municipal court. Montezuma County Sheriff Dennis Spruell said the homeless issue affects the city much more than the county.

He added homeless people tend to commit more minor crimes than other people, mentioning shoplifting and trespassing as two examples.

John has been arrested on both of these charges. After being caught shoplifting, he was told that he was not allowed to return to the stores; however, he returned anyway, prompting the trespassing charges.

Spruell pointed out there are options for those needing a place to stay. The Bridge Emergency Shelter is one of those locations, though it is only open at night from mid-October to mid-April.

"A lot of those people are not homeless. They choose not to go home," he said. "It is disheartening to see a homeless person on the streets."

He admitted seeing homeless people can be an unpleasant sight for tourists and other visitors.

Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Dena Guttridge, said businesses tend to watch homeless people more closely when they come into their stores since most have little money to purchase items.

She also said there have been times when tourists are scared to visit the city parks because they see homeless people in the park.

Guttridge said people have pulled into the Visitors Center parking lot with the intention of using or visiting one of the parks but become hesitant to do so.

"They are just frightened of them," she said about the homeless people in the park. "Visitors are afraid to get out of their car."

Sometimes, the center's staff will ask homeless people in the park to move.

She said there also have been a few times when chamber employees have had to call the police when they witnessed problems.

However, businesses, she said, tend to look the other way when a homeless person holds up a sign asking for donations near the entrance and exit to parking lots, which occurred frequently leading up to Christmas.

Guttridge agrees with Spruell in thinking that many homeless choose to be on the street.

"For a lot of them, it is a choice," she said. "I would venture to guess that many of the (homeless) people have substance abuse or mental problems and are not able to hold down a job."

Guttridge said during the day when the shelter is closed the homeless go to the library, recreation center or some place else to keep warm.

A few have used the visitor's center building as a place to get warm or use the restrooms.

The Help

Guttridge said there are services and help available.

She mentioned two soup kitchens that feed a large number of people every day, including some families.

She remembers one day when spicy chili was on the menu, and the volunteers made cheese sandwiches for the children.

"We tend to take care of everyone," she said of the community.

When the shelter is closed during the warmer months, homeless people sleep in the parks and in vacant fields like the one behind Radio Shack on Main Street along with other locations.

Cortez Police Chief Roy Lane said the city has been working with the homeless for years to make sure they are doing OK, especially in the middle of the night so they do not freeze to death.

For two-straight years a person has froze to death in the park.

Lane said while it may be true that a homeless person could impact a business by shoplifting or trespassing it makes no difference to the police department who commits the crime. All people who break the law are treated the same, Lane said.

Hale said the city will always try and provide a safety net for people who needs assistance.

michaelm@cortezjournal.com