Complaints about the Homeless Aired at Chamber Forum

Members of the business community joined with Councilmember Brett Lee (far right), Deputy DA Chris Bulkeley (center), Police Chief Darren Pytel (fourth from left) and Supervisor Don Saylor to discuss homeless issues.

The Davis Chamber hosted a 10-person forum on Tuesday at the Vet’s Memorial with a number of business and government leaders on the 10-person panel.  There were a number of very serious complaints aired during this time, the most serious by talk radio host Jack Armstrong, who described a recent incident where his family, including his five- and seven-year-old kids, was eating dinner and was brutally accosted by a homeless individual.

Davis Police Chief Darren Pytel, responding to a question about panhandling, explained that “not all homeless are panhandlers, and not all panhandlers are homeless.”  He went onto explain that, as a result of a Supreme Court case, local jurisdictions are more limited in what they can do to prevent panhandling, as they found that it is protected speech.

“The speech used to panhandle in a non-aggressive way is protected speech,” he said.  “So essentially we can’t have regulations, ordinances, or laws that just prohibit someone from (asking for money).”

Therefore most panhandling ordinances that deal with panhandling or panhandling in certain locations are going to be invalid.  The chief did say there were some things we can do “unrelated to speech, dealing with conduct.  We can of course regulate types of conduct that can be dangerous.”

The two things that seem safe to regulate are preventing people from being in certain locations like near an ATM, or certain other places.

Tom Jobst from Froggy’s pointed out that if people are loitering in front of the bar, that is in violation of their liquor license.  So when people refuse to move away from the bar, they have simply called the police.  He said, “That’s what has worked for us.”

Chief Pytel agreed that “for bars under state law they can prevent anyone from loitering under state law.”  However, he did warn that the distance away from the bar was pretty limited in terms of their ability to move people.

Jack Armstrong, a long time radio host and resident of Davis, had a very serious incident that occurred at Dos Coyotes where he was eating with his wife and two kids.  “It’s hard to go anywhere with my kids in Davis right now because if we see anybody that looks like this gentleman looked, my kids start crying…”

They were on the patio at Dos Coyotes eating dinner.  A guy came stumbling up to the patio, clearly intoxicated.  He walked right up to the table.  Mr. Armstrong said, “I can’t help you man, move along.”  At this point the guy went on a tirade.

He immediately screamed out, “I’m going to f-ing kill you.  I’m going to f-ing kill you, I’m going to f-ing kill your kids.  I’m going to f-ing rape your kids, I’m going to f-ing kill you.”

His kids started crying, and he stood up thinking they were going to have a physical altercation.  “He took a couple of steps back and I was between him and the children who were just screaming ‘Daddy, make him stop.’”

He was trying to get his phone out to call the cops and at one point the guy reached into his pocket and said he was going to shoot him.  “I thought I’m going to get shot right here on the street.  I hadn’t calculated that in the process of standing up to this guy,” he said.  He quickly figured the guy was bluffing when he didn’t pull anything out.

“There was nobody coming out to help or anything,” he said.  When he got the police on the phone, the guy walked away and took off.

He said as he tells his friends this story, everyone they talk to realizes that they have been “slowly adjusting our lifestyles as places get sketchier and sketchier in town.”

They eventually caught this guy and found out that he has a record and is wanted elsewhere.  Mr. Armstrong said, “He is actually violent.”

He said, “I want Davis to stop being a magnet” for these kinds of people.  He said, “This is the scariest thing that ever happened in my life.”

Darren Pytel said that they are starting to see a transition in the type of people they are dealing with.  He said that the homeless people come from a very wide cross section and, while some homeless in town never pose a problem, they are now starting to deal with more that are causing problems.

Part of the problem, he said, is, “The price of drugs has gone down considerably in the last five years.”  Combined with the fact that panhandling can bring in $80 to $160 a day, the amount of money flowing is just a lot of money and, as a result, there is “significant drug use in the population.”  The problem, he said, has “converted from beer to meth, heroin and of course marijuana.”

Those who aren’t doing panhandling are often involved in burglary, where homeless will break into cars and get rid of property quickly.

Bill Pride, the director of Davis Community Meals, while not discounting that over the years he has heard and seen stories of violent encounters, said that “as a general rule our programs are safe, people come eat and they leave peacefully.”

He also said that “I do not support panhandling.”  He said he believes that at any given time somewhere between 60 and 75 percent of the homeless population is drug addicted and that the core group of folks use panhandling to support their habits.  He has suggested, rather than giving people money, using the “giving meter” as a way to support the homeless without putting cash into their hands.

Supervisor Don Saylor suggested giving financial contributions directly to organizations doing the work to fund services, rather than giving cash contribution.

Deputy DA Chris Bulkeley said that one of the big problems is that a lot of people don’t want to get services.  And that getting people into treatment is one of the biggest challenges as, generally speaking, they cannot compel people to take medication unless they place them in a conservatorship – which is a long and difficult process.

Tracey Dickinson, Yolo County’s homeless program coordinator, said that they reach out to the unsheltered population “and what we find is that it often takes a very long time to build the relationship with that person so that they are willing to access services.  On average it would take like seven ‘touches’ so seven times of going out (and making contact) before they are even willing to engage in a conversation.”

She also pointed out, with someone living outside or homeless, “it’s very difficult to stabilize.”

A business owner who was an audience member and did not identify herself said, “I’m a downtown business owner, I have had a highly successful business for eight years, I want to be able to operate that business unbothered and unmolested by the homeless.”  She added that she wanted herself and her customers to be able to go from parking to her business “feeling safe and (not) having to step in garbage, squalor, filth – be threatened by pitbulls” and not having to step over people who have set up sleeping areas with stinking beds.

She also asked what offenses the police actually respond to.

Chief Pytel responded that “it is hard to give you very specific answers.”  He said he would have to listen to a call and determine whether it is something they can deal with.  They prioritize it.  He said that they will always respond to fighting or threats, people who are drunk or passed out, and those screaming.  He said patrols range from four during the day shift with a bicycle officer, to seven on the busiest night.

Jack Armstrong would ask if there is something we are doing to attract these people to the community.

Chief Pytel said that they are “seeing a change too.”  He said there were people who were being “extremely uncooperative.”  But he also added that it is “not something unique to Davis.”  He went to a regional conference and the most engaging discussion was on dealing with the homeless.  He came away “feeling good about Davis and the types of things we are doing.”  He concluded that this was not necessarily a Davis thing and what other communities are dealing with is far worse.

Mayor Pro Tem Brett Lee joined the discussion later because of council closed session labor negotiations.  He said that this issue very complex.  He said, “This idea of homelessness – it’s not a very good descriptor of what the issues are except in a very narrow sense.

“It’s really about behavior and whether you have a roof over your head, whether you have a nice car in your driveway, if you come and are disruptive,” he said, noting that many of the problems in downtown on Friday morning are due to the behavior of drunk college students from the night before who are relatively well off.  “It’s really about behavior.”

He called homelessness “almost this third rail” when they talk about homelessness.  For instance, their discussion of restrictions on panhandling engendered a lot of pushback.  He said, “Immediately the discussion drifted into, you’re criminalizing homelessness.  What are you doing to support them?”

He said, “I think it’s totally reasonable to focus on people’s behavior.”  He added, “As a council person, I’m very aware of the issues… it’s very troubling that things take so long (to address).”

Jon Adler has worked with the homeless population for about 20 years, and is a former homeless person himself.  He said that we are attracting people here.  “The same reason that you chose to live here – it is safe, it is a nice town.  When I went to bed, I didn’t worry about someone kicking my head in.”

He said, “Living on the street is a traumatic experience.  I can see why someone might be a little bit aggravated.”   He said he’s not homeless anymore, he has a wife and kids who are in college, and “I got aggravated from what I was hearing.  There is a lack of compassion and until there’s compassion nothing is going to work.”

He said he has gone into homeless camps on a regular basis and has walked with Mayor Robb Davis at 9:30 on a Friday night into a homeless camp.  “I was fine.  He was fine.  We went in there with compassion.”

This was just one in a series of discussions on the homeless.  This is obviously a huge and growing issue, but, as Chief Pytel pointed out, Davis is not alone in dealing with this.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

Come see the Vanguard Event – “In Search of Gideon” – which highlights some of the key work performed by the Yolo County Public Defender’s Office…

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. Keith O

    He said, “I want Davis to stop being a magnet” for these kinds of people.

    Davis is a magnet for the homeless, it looks like people are starting to now realize that.  The homeless actually say that too.  The more welcoming the community is the more the problem will only get worse.

    1. Robb Davis

      Actual data, as opposed to blithely stated assertions, simply do not bear this out. Of course, homeless individuals live in Davis for the same reasons we all do, but there is zero evidence that Davis is a “magnet”.

      I want to know whether folks actually want us to address this problem, or whether they are simply saying “make it go away.”

    2. David Greenwald

      Yes the former homeless guy said that Davis attracts homeless because he could sleep without fearing of getting his head kicked in. On the other hand, Darren pointed out (as you ignore) that Davis is dealing with issues that other cities are and is better off than most other cities. So that is the unsaid flip side of the coin that you’re tossing here.

  2. Jim Hoch

    “Make them go away” was the theme. It’s not as if either embracing the homeless, like Santa Monica, or fighting the homeless, like many other communities, has been successful in this regard.

    There was generally more support for bathrooms than I expected.

    1. David Greenwald

      The problem remains – you can’t make them go away. The point made by Tracey was important – if people don’t have roofs over their head, treatment and services are particularly helpful.

  3. Keith O

     Combined with the fact that panhandling can bring in $80 to $160 a day, the amount of money flowing is just a lot of money and as a result, there is “significant drug use in the population.”  The problem he said has “converted from beer to meth, heroin and of course marijuana.”

    $160 per day untaxed, that’s better than most people make downtown actually working.  Giving panhandlers money isn’t going to make the problem any better, it just makes Davis more of a magnet.

  4. David Greenwald

    A business owner who was an audience member and did not identify herself said, “I’m a downtown business owner, I have had a highly successful business for eight years, I want to be able to operate that business unbothered and unmolested by the homeless.”  

    One of the key question is what do we do.  I don’t think there is an easy answer here.  I’m not sure what we gained from this discussion.

    1. Howard P

      ‘Problem definition/identification’, as seen through various eyes?  That would be progress…

      BTW, to elaborate on Pytel’s observation that pan-handling does not equal homelessness (and vice versa), usually homelessness is a ‘constellation’…may be due to economics, may be due to personality, may be due to substance abuse, may be due to mental illness/early dementia, and is often some combination of those factors, to various degrees.

      There is no magic bullet.

    2. Jim Hoch

      I did not actually talk about trailer parks. I did ask about paying more attention to aggressive dogs. This seemed to strike a cord and provoked discussion. Chief Pytel said the homeless generally have dogs with shots and licenses as many groups do that for free. The DA did suggest taking a photo of threatening dogs/owners and emailing them to the DPD for evidence and enforcement.

  5. Sharla C.

    It is hard to convince people to stop giving cash to panhandlers. They think that they are being helpful or compassionate.   After living for a few years in Berkeley, I was convinced that giving cash only perpetuated this existence.  The same people who were panhandling when I moved there were still panhandling when I moved away 6 years later.  There were assaults and rapes among the homeless population and made the physical environment untenable for everyone. Berkeley devoted millions to homeless services – shelters, food, showers, storage, counseling, etc. – but it just seemed to get worse and worse.  They had the Health Department red-tag and close a local park, so it could be cleaned for thousands of dollars.  Finally, the City passed “no sit or lie” ordinances, established distances from ATMs and businesses and people feeding parking meters.  Then did a community wide education campaign to encourage people to just stop giving out cash.  Think of it like this – instead of giving people cash, hand them alcohol, meth or heroin…it is essentially the same thing, so why not just skip the whole money step.

    1. Howard P

      It’s easy to give money… I never do (only to organizations that supply food, other services). I’ll invite them to a meal nearby, and pay the tab… my method actually means I have to engage them more, and often I share a meal with them.  Almost all appreciate my gesture more than the money.

      Actually engaging with them instead of assuaging one’s conscience by ‘paying them off’, takes a tad more humanity and empathy, in my opinion.  Plus you don’t feed into a substance abuse pattern. [Except, perhaps, if they order a ‘sugary drink’]

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