The city council has taken a necessarily deliberate approach on the issue of panhandling. It was a year ago that the council last addressed the issue. At that time, city staff noted, “Panhandling, particularly in the downtown core but also prevalent in and around neighborhood shopping centers, has reached a critical mass that is having adverse effects on the community’s overall economic and social well-being.”
At the same time, panhandling in general is protected under free speech protections, making enforcement more difficult. So rather than issuing a blanket prohibition against panhandling, what the city has the ability to do is “to regulate the conduct related to panhandling, including the time, manner, and place of panhandling or solicitations in order to ensure the health, safety and well-being of the public.”
When the issue came up before staff, problems were cited of people using vacant storefronts and doorways to store personal belongings for periods of time, often in the public right of way and leading to “sidewalk obstructions” that “can be dangerous to the passing public.” They also noted problems with the public use of “alcohol, drugs, and concerns about sanitation and safety concerns because of potentially aggressive dogs.”
There is little doubt that aggressive panhandling can be a problem – although that maybe not the biggest problem the community faces in terms of the homeless.
Based on this, city staff has developed a draft ordinance that would prohibit, among other things, aggressive conduct, soliciting within 15 feet of an ATM, blocking vehicular flow, activity in the
median strip of the road, the blockage of a sidewalk, and the laying out of private property in public spaces.
The city staff notes that the law does not allow them to prohibit all forms of solicitation, but the idea here is to give the city some tools to deal with folks who are being aggressive.
Having listened to the complaints, especially over the last year, and having worked in the downtown for the past six years, I understand the need to give the police and community more tools. The problem that I see is how to mesh that with the police view, one taken from Chief Pytel, namely that the homeless problem is not going to be solved through law enforcement.
“A lot of people say, why don’t you just arrest them?” the chief said in May. “We’re finding over and over that that’s not necessarily the answer,” especially if “mental illness or drugs and addiction are the primary issues.
“So just making an arrest under the current criminal justice system is not going to change that behavior,” he explained. “We are looking for support that people are open to alternatives to the traditional criminal justice system.” He mentioned the neighborhood court, support for agencies that support those citizens, and other programs.
The staff report did add that “if this ordinance is passed offenders may be eligible for neighborhood court and other sentencing alternatives in lieu of paying fines.”
The problem that the police face here is that they can’t simply arrest and hold people for these kinds of offenses. And putting fines on homeless people is not productive, while jail time in some cases gives them a bed and food. Even without mental illness, that may not be a great deterrence.
The neighborhood court may be a way to go – but, again, if you are dealing with issues of homelessness and mental illness, there may be limits as to what alternative approaches can do.
Bottom line is that it makes sense to give the police the ability to remove someone from a situation where they are being aggressive or hostile to other members of the public. As a short-term tool this could work. But in the long term this is a complicated issue not likely to be solved through enforcement. The public needs to recognize that.
There is a segment of the community that clearly would prefer that the city make the homeless problem go away.
At the forum the Davis Chamber sponsored last fall, talk radio host Jack Armstrong described a scary encounter he and his family had with a homeless person.
From a policy perspective, the question is – what do we do about it? Mr. Armstrong said, “I want Davis to stop being a magnet” for these kind of people.
But the question really is, what does that mean and even what can we do?
As Chief Darren Pytel put it, “the issues are extremely complex and most people have no idea about the interplay with all the systems and how complex human beings are.”
The city is working on the homeless issue on a number of different fronts, including the homeless coordinator, the creation of housing opportunities, and the expansion of services. The city is looking to go further with funding from a potential revenue measure.
The panhandling ordinance might give police additional tools to use when panhandlers cross the line, but the chief has been clear that this problem is “not something unique to Davis” and it is not going to be solved through enforcement actions.
—David M. Greenwald reporting