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Tom Gallagher, Colorado Springs councilman, votes against ordinance targeting tent cities -- because he was once homeless

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On Monday, we told you about the face-off between columnist/AM 760 host David Sirota and Colorado Springs councilman Sean Paige over the perception that the Springs' conservative policies have made bad problems worse during the ongoing economic downturn.

Against this backdrop, the Springs council voted 8-1 last night to approve an anti-camping ordinance that would essentially outlaw tent cities where hundreds of homeless people have been staying.

Councilman Tom Gallagher cast the single "no" vote. Why was he opposed? "Part of it is because I was homeless in this town," Gallagher says.

The year was 1981, and Gallagher, then living in Craig, Colorado, heard about plentiful construction jobs in the Springs. But when he arrived in town, he discovered these rumors were unfounded. "There just wasn't any work, and I didn't have any social network," he says. "So I lived for a while under a highway overpass, between the foundation slab the girders sit on and the slip joint."

Fortunately, Gallagher was able to find enough day labor gigs to put a succession of roofs over his head. "I bounced between hotels on South Havana Avenue" before being able to afford a more stable home base.

As a result, he says, "I understand how tough it is to get a job when you don't have a phone number or address. And I understand that homeless people need other people to give them a chance.

"I'm very cognizant of the law of unintended consequences. There are families out there that don't seek out programs to help them because the first thing that happens when you admit to living in a car is the Department of Human Services takes their kids. These folks aren't seeking services; they're trying to do things for themselves. And I don't see the benefit of kicking them when they're down."

Empathy isn't the only reason Gallagher objects to the measure.

"Part of the problem is, the ordinance that we adopted pretty much makes anybody who goes and spends the day in Memorial Park on the 4th of July in violation," he maintains. "You can't put a blanket on the grass and lay on it without violating it."

Just as troublesome for Gallagher is the leeway the measure offers police personnel trying to enforce it, especially at times when homeless shelters are full or unavailable. "This is the United States of America," he says. "We don't grant broad discretionary power to law enforcement."

As for the motives of those who back the ordinance, Gallagher believes that some members locals are embarrassed by the tent cities and would rather not see them: "Out of sight, out of mind," he says. But he rejects any suggestion that the average Springs resident is hardhearted.

"We are a compassionate and caring community," he stresses, "and when the temperatures went below zero in December, around Christmastime, there was an outpouring of giving that actually caused problems. When you're homeless, your possessions are kind of limited to what you can carry, and this community provided way more than people could carry. They gave food donations and all kinds of other things with the best of intentions -- but when you're homeless, you don't have a refrigerator. So some of these problems became more visible."

The vote for the measure last night wasn't final; there'll be at least one more reading, and some language in it can still be altered. That'd be fine by Gallagher -- and even if it passes, he thinks most tent city residents will receive help that wasn't available in his days of homelessness.

"When I was on the streets of this town, there were no homeless services," he recalls. "The county had closed the poor farm, the city had closed the youth hostel. It was tough. So in that regard, at least we have more services available."

Nonetheless, he believes "the private sector and the nonprofit sector in this town need to step up to the plate to address the more complex issue of homelessness. This is a condition that doesn't have a single cause, so we can't have a one-size-fits-all solution. There are some very exciting and innovative things in the pipeline, and they may not have come about if we hadn't had a community discussion around this ordinance."

In the meantime, the tent cities remain in place. Where will the people who live there go if they're banished? Says Gallagher: "I don't know."

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