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Douglas County has new messaging on how to handle homelessness

Douglas County is trying to tell people handouts don't help and get them to donate to nonprofits instead. Why? They're citing public safety concerns.

DOUGLAS COUNTY, Colo. — Douglas County is trying to tell people that handouts don't help when it comes to those experiencing homelessness.

They're trying to get people to donate to nonprofits instead, saying public safety is a big concern.

Douglas County Sheriff Darren Weekly and Republican County Commissioner Abe Laydon met us at the busy intersection of I-25 and Lincoln. 

"We're worried about somebody being injured in a traffic crash," Weekly said.

He's talking about people receiving donations and the people giving them.

It's part of the reason county signs are being put up saying "handouts don't help" and to give safely through douglashasheart.org, which directs donations to the Douglas County Community Foundation. From there, the site says it will go toward organizations to help those experiencing homelessness.

"Handing out money at intersections [is] only going to get more people asking for money at intersections," Laydon said. "The idea in Douglas County is, compassion is who we are, and giving safely is what we request."

Laydon said he's been talking to folks who said homelessness is a big concern, even though the homeless community in Douglas County is small. 

"Our point in time for homelessness is 78," Layden said. "Not a high number." 

Another point in time count will happen next week, and the sheriff would like to do it again in the summer. 

Instead of giving cash at intersections, the county wants people to go to a county website to donate to four nonprofits that the county has worked with for years. 

"I don't know who Douglas County is to tell people not to ask for the things that they need," advocate Cathy Alderman said.

She's responding to concerns from county leaders, who said you don't know how the cash will be spent. 

"And it's very, I think, condescending to people experiencing homelessness to say that if they're not going to use the money to get a job, or get sober or immediately do what you want them to do, then you shouldn't assist them.," Alderman said.

"We often hear, especially from the Douglas County Commissioners, this idea of independence and freedom to do as you see fit. Yet, they're telling people what they can and cannot do with their own money," she added. 

In response, Laydon said, "Douglas County is all about freedom. And we want to ensure of rights of all citizens are being respected." 

Panhandling is not illegal, but the sheriff's office said a person can get in trouble for interfering with traffic. 

The sheriff said last year they responded to around 400 calls regarding contact with people experiencing homelessness, everything from complaints about people panhandling, to people in the roadway, to deputies making contact with folks. 

The sheriff said he's worried about people living with substance abuse or mental health issues, and that not everyone may actually be homeless and how that could turn into a dangerous situation. 

When we asked if anyone was hurt either receiving or giving money and he said, "Not yet, but it is a concern for us." 

When we asked if this is about trying to move the homeless out of Douglas County the sheriff said, "I mean, no, it's a free country. The fact of the matter is we want zero homelessness in Douglas County. There are services available for those who want and need help. We are trying to eliminate people standing on street corners begging for money." 

The county also has a team called HEART, which pairs up officers and community partners to connect people with resources.  

HEART made contact with 147 people in the last few months of 2022, after they launched. 

That number is going to vary from the point in time count which is from one night versus the HEART numbers are from over several months.  

Other areas around Colorado have similar messaging, encouraging people to donate to non-profits instead of giving cash directly, including Colorado Springs and Aurora. 

In a statement, the city of Aurora shared: 

"In August, the Aurora City Council passed a resolution to encourage donations to local charities rather than to people panhandling. Signs promoting the "Give Real Change" campaign are currently posted at various intersections across the city (see attached). More information about the campaign is available online at GiveRealChange.org."

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