Mickey and his girlfriend Karma, from California, say they are recent arrivals to the 16th Street Mall in Denver.

(Vic Vela/CPR News)

When passengers riding the shuttle bus along Denver's 16th Street Mall get dropped off, they step into a world filled with colorful characters.

There’s often a guy there preaching about Jesus through a megaphone. There’s also a good chance that some random person will be playing one of the pianos that are positioned along the mall.

And then there’s someone like Mickey -- if that’s his real name. He introduces himself as Mickey Mouse and says he's homeless. He and his girlfriend just arrived here from California a few days ago.

Why Colorado? For the marijuana.

“Absolutely. I mean, wouldn’t you come to Denver for weed?” he says. “I mean it’s legal here.”

He plans to smoke weed, sell jewelry and ask people for money on the mall. And he doesn’t care if that bothers people.

“I say if it’s too hot in the kitchen, get out, pretty much,” he says with a chuckle. “I mean, people are gonna to do what they’re gonna do. You know, everybody ought to get along. Smoke more weed. Chill out.”

The summer weather – and, yes, marijuana – attracts a lot of urban travelers like Mickey. They converge here in one of Denver’s top tourist destinations, and they sometimes bring problems.

Concerns Over Safety

An assessment by Visit Denver late last year concluded that safety concerns -- and perceptions of safety problems -- on the mall cost the city convention business. Complaints include panhandling and marijuana smoke. And videos have surfaced recently showing assaults and other violence.

The concerns have spurred city officials and the downtown business community to take action to beef up security on the mall. Earlier this summer, Mayor Michael Hancock called for more police officers there. And beginning Wednesday, the mall will have private security guards.

Those guards, hired by the Downtown Denver Partnership, are part of a larger downtown security plan that's being welcomed by many in the business community there who say the behavior by some of the people on the mall endangers their businesses.

"If you have a situation where you have an outdoor seating area of a restaurant and across the street people are yelling or sometimes they are doing drugs or whatever the case may be, that doesn’t make a very inviting or inclusive environment for businesses to thrive,” says David Kauffman. He sits on the Downtown Denver Business Improvement District board.

Julien White, a 23-year-old Denver resident sitting outside a restaurant on the mall, is one of those people put off by what he sees.

The mall "used to be a nice place," he says. "It used to be a really cool to hang out. There was no violence. That’s part of the reason why I’m here. But now it just seems like a lot of the kids are fighting for no reason."

The Denver Police Department has doubled patrols on the mall. Police Chief Robert White says arrests are down there because of the increased police presence, althoigh arrests were already down on the mall, even before Mayor Hancock’s call for increased police presence. This year, there were 522 arrests on the mall between Jan. 1 and June 14, compared to 565 arrests during the same period in 2015, according to statistics provided by the Denver Police Department.

There have been some arrests for panhandling and assault on the mall this year, but they do not come close to making up the majority of arrests on the mall. Chief White says arrests for petty theft make up about 80 percent of crimes.

“I am of the opinion that the mall is a very safe place,” White says. “It certainly is an important icon to our community so we certainly want to come to the mall and enjoy all the amenities that the mall has to offer.”

Business owners like Jason Martinez, who runs The Chili Truck on the mall, says the police patrols have made a difference. 

“Everybody is loving the presence of the police down here,” he says. “If something happens, they respond right away. Before you had to call and it’d be an hour to an hour and a half before they show.”

Kauffman agrees with Chief White that the mall is a safe place to visit, in spite of some of its problems. And he thinks the private security presence will make it an even more inviting place.

“If [people] see that there is an infrastructure of security in place, it gives them a more comfortable feeling, regardless of the fact that we are one of the safer cities of our size in our country,” he says. “I think it will be a positive thing.”

Worries Over Private Security

The Downtown Denver Partnership says security guards have received training from the Denver Police Department, which includes instruction from a department homeless outreach officer.

Still, Cathy Alderman of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless has some concerns about the added security. She worries that increased patrols could result in more homeless people going to jail. She’s also concerned that private security guards may not be trained to handle certain segments of the homeless community.

“Law enforcement are trained to deescalate situations to really help address mental health issues when they encounter them,” she says. “And I’m not sure that same level of training will be present in the private security team.”

Alderman understands that some city resources need to be used for public safety on the mall, but she’d also like to see some of the money go toward more resources for Denver’s homeless community.

Crystal Rathmann is one of those people on the mall who says she's just trying to survive. She’s says she's there everyday, panhandling with her boyfriend after they moved here from Florida in an attempt to better their lives. She’s often asked by police to move if she’s been sitting in one area for too long, she says. Passersby will sometimes give her spare change and leftovers, but she’ll also get dirty looks.

“You can’t really just judge somebody just for holding a sign that they’re automatically going to use it for booze or drugs. Maybe they genuinely need help,” she said.

Even though she's in a tough spot, she says she’s not here to cause any problems and doesn’t want to be lumped in with others who are.

Rathmann’s boyfriend, James Weismore, cautions that "the better part of half of America is only about two paychecks away from being in the same spot,” and anyone can end up on the streets.