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On a brisk Tuesday evening in February, concerned citizens, town council members and a cadre of T-shirt-clad firefighters gather at the town hall in Castle Rock -- the largest enclave in a county with the second-highest median household income in the nation, a county in which less than 2.1 percent of families live below the federal poverty level -- to discuss a disturbing trend that has become almost synonymous with Castle Rock itself: panhandlers. Forget those McMansions springing up across the plains and those upscale Factory Outlet shops such as Liz Claiborne and Ralph Lauren -- that's just what outsiders see. Pulsing beneath the slick surface of Castle Rock, like a pus-oozing tumor infecting the city's main arteries and veins, is a sinister plague so rotten, it's eroding the very social fabric of the entire East Plum Creek Valley.
Or so some townsfolk would have you believe.
Block captain Ed Dash has seen it all before. He came from a large West Coast city, where he learned firsthand how panhandling leads to the sort of depravity that ruined his boyhood home. Plus, it makes him uncomfortable.
"People feel intimidated when they approach intersections and see these people making eye contact with them," Dash tells the council. "It makes people feel nervous. And the behavior is reinforced because people do contribute."
Not only are these panhandlers intimidating, resident Jamie Kimbrough adds, but they're dishonest. A man she knew spotted one of these derelicts on a corner, begging for change, and offered him an honest day's labor. And what did the derelict do? He refused the hard work in favor of standing there and taking Castle Rock commuters' hard-earned money. And besides, some of these seemingly homeless panhandlers are not really homeless at all.
"They're grifting," she says, causing everyone in the room to check their watches and make sure it isn't 1926. Kimbrough doesn't want to be over-dramatic, but if Castle Rock continues to allow panhandling while other places ban it, will the town be overrun by grifters? Someday, she suggests darkly, it might even resemble the dreaded 16th Street Mall in downtown Denver!
But there is opposition to the proposed Solicitations in the Right of Way ordinance, which would ban panhandlers from intersections, penalizing violators with fines of up to $1,000 and a year in jail. The city's firefighters show up en masse, not to argue for the rights of all beggars to beg, but to defend their Fill the Boot tradition. Every Labor Day, firefighters take to sidewalks, medians and intersections around the country to raise funds for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, shaking their boots and smiling their beefy smiles for charity. How will the Castle Rock firefighters do their bit for the MDA, for Jerry's Kids, if the ordinance passes?
Town council member Mitch Dulleck feels their pain. "I think that right now what the firefighters do outweighs the fact that we have a handful of people who panhandle," he says.
The measure was first proposed a year ago, after residents began complaining about the panhandlers springing up on Castle Rock's well-manicured medians. The council voted it down then and promised to address the issue again later, after the proposal was reworked to allow the firefighters' pet project. But now the town's legal staff has determined that allowing firefighters to panhandle but banning the activity for everyone else is unconstitutional. So in Castle Rock, it will be all -- or nothing.
That's why the firefighters, councilmembers and crotchety residents have been debating the matter at top volume, discussing everything from boot size, to evasive hobo stares, to why the French so adore Jerry Lewis. They discuss everything but the obvious: There are no homeless people in Castle Rock. I've been to Castle Rock dozens of times, and I don't recall ever seeing a homeless person here -- and if I did, the homeless person was obviously not drawing attention to his destitute self through panhandling, much less doing anything to inspire a year of debate and waste the time of dozens of hunky, hunky firemen.
Town Attorney Bob Slentz tells the council to consider the proposal carefully before the final vote next month. "We are not breaking any ground with this particular initiative. Douglas County, Lone Tree and I think Parker all have similar ordinances," he says, urging everyone to "use your experience, good judgment and common sense."
So I do. I phone J.J. McCormack, Castle Rock's community-relations liaison, to learn which intersections are at the epicenter of the epidemic now threatening the fine city of Castle Rock. I am going to venture into the belly of the beast -- as the beast.
Combing through my closet, I try to figure out what to wear. What would a homeless person do? For that matter, what would Jesus do? And when you really think about it, what's the difference between Jesus and a homeless person? Didn't Jesus just travel around, sleeping wherever he could find a spot, looking all beardy and granola? Isn't that what homeless people do? When I realize that I'm over-thinking this decision and also probably already going to hell, I settle on an old pair of ripped-up jeans, a waffled undershirt, a gray hoodie and a thick, green vest that my dad wore in the '70s. (He wasn't homeless then, but he did look like a down-on-his-luck Ozzy Osbourne, which is close.) I complete the ensemble with a torn and tattered beanie and some ugly white high-tops that a friend acquired from a drunken FILA rep one night. I haven't shaved for a week and I drank heavily last night; now I roll around in the mud for good measure. The result is a look I like to call "hobo-chic" -- the same defeated look you'd see on any Denver hipster if you took away his parents' credit card and then told him his favorite unknown indie band had just landed a song on The Real World.