Whether and how the city loosens its rules on roadside panhandling remained an open question last week.
“There’s a lot of opinions,” said Councilwoman Diane Catotti.
“There’s ... a lot of moving parts and not a lot of consensus,” said Councilman Don Moffitt.
The City Council spent 45 minutes talking about revisions to the city’s “roadside solicitation” regulations, which some opponents claim “criminalize poverty” by restricting where panhandlers may ask for money.
Among other provisions, the proposed changes repeal the current bans on panhandling on freeway access ramps, within 100 feet of a bridge entrance and in travel lanes.
They retain the ban on soliciting from medians, but remove the ban on animal companions.
The city-county Homeless Services Advisory Committee (HSAC) proposed the changes in August, and last week City Manager Tom Bonfield presented them seeking City Council guidance on whether to proceed with putting any into the city code.
“I wouldn’t want to say we didn’t get any guidance,” Bonfield said later. He said he and city attorneys will compare notes and come up with their own suggested revisions for the council to consider.
“I ... see where there were some potential places of agreement,” he said.
Agreement was apparent on one HSAC proposal that is already in place. After the HSAC recommendations came out, Bonfield and Chief District Court Judge Marcia Morey arranged for defendants to be seen in the Community Life Court, where social-service agencies have staff on hand to help with housing, medical, employment or other troubles that lead to begging on the streets.
If the defendants accept and carry through with a program of help, they may have their charges dismissed instead of facing fines or jail time. The first 13 cases handled under that arrangement were heard in October and were continued until December to allow defendants and agencies time to get together.
“That was the one thing everybody (on City Council) was happy with,” said Councilman Steve Schewel, who first suggested the approach last spring.
Social services, though, has not been the main goal of those opposed to the current rules. In late 2012, the City Council adopted new restrictions on roadside solicitation, which also apply to charities asking for donations and politicians asking for votes as well as asking for handouts. The rules were called a safety measure, but their effects on panhandlers became a point of contention almost as soon as they took effect in January.
At the Feb. 7 council work session, Carolyn Schuldt, director of the nonprofit Open Table Ministries, said the new rules make panhandling “nearly impossible” and “impact the survival of a very vulnerable population.”
Opponents have continued to speak out at council sessions, lobby council members and hold public demonstrations for repealing the new restrictions.
Repealing “is not helping anyone,” said Councilman Eugene Brown.
“Going to the Community Life Court is a real asset,” Brown said, “and we need to continue that, that’s for sure.” Loosened rules, though, could result in fewer panhandlers reaching services they need through the court’s referrals.
“They just started doing this ... so it’s a little early to be able to point to results and say, ‘Hey, look, the results of these tighter rules and regulations are people getting the services they need,” Moffitt said. “If they (need them) let’s get them to Community Life Court.”
Not all panhandlers need or want social services, or will be helped by them, several council members said.
“The hard and fast reality of all this is, some people do not want help,” Brown said. “They want to live in the woods, they want to do their own thing and be independent.”
Schewel said he has come to know a disabled panhandler who, “because of issues he has, has made himself difficult to help. But I think the issues are real and ... I don’t think we should be averting our eyes from a true reality in our midst.”
Bonfield said he would have some proposals for the council “in the near future” but, “It’s probably too early for me to say” what they might be.
“Nobody’s going to be thrilled,” Moffitt said.
“The most outspoken people are the ones who are unhappy with the status quo,” he said. “If it changes, it’ll be a different group of people who are unhappy.”