Commentary: Will Ordinance Address Concerns about Aggressive Panhandling?


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

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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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24 thoughts on “Commentary: Will Ordinance Address Concerns about Aggressive Panhandling?”

  1. PhilColeman

    ” . . . 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.”

    Concerns and issues. For the police to “remove someone from a situation” that’s code for arrest, the only legally defensible means for police to make a removal of a person.

    Then what? The police can issue a citation and command the detained person to appear in court. This is not a “removal,” it is a minor inconvenience to the suspect. He/She remains at the scene and continues the objectionable and aggressive panhandling. Bear in mind a behavior that is annoying to us who prosper, is a survival tool for the homeless.

    Nothing is gained by removing the person to jail. Jails are overcrowded already and the person would be summarily released to conform with federal prison population standards.

    A Neighborhood Court is cryptically described as some sort of solution device. If such informal judicial bodies have dependable funded resources to give support for those panhandling, they will certainly be effective. We don’t have adequate social remedies to address the homeless dynamic. Corrective measures come at a significant public cost, a cost that the public is not willing to endure.

    This is more definitive expansion to Chief Pytel’s statement that law enforcement will not solve the homeless problem. Yet, like local governments elsewhere, Davis persisted with a law enforcement remedy that is doomed to fail.


      1. Howard P

        And some panhandlers are not homeless, not do they have substance issues… haven’t seen many in last two years, but we did have Roma in town… panhandling, and with bigger, newer vehicles than we own.

  2. Ken A

    Thinking outside the box if Davis would require all news bars (and comic book stores) make 30% of their drinks (and comics) “affordable” the way they make they make new apartments have “affordable” units the homeless would have to panhandle less often (and/or less aggressively) to fuel their addiction to booze (and comics).

    P.S. To John I’m wondering if he has an estimate of the percentage of homeless in Davis that do NOT have mental and/or substance abuse issues (my guess is <5%)

    P.P.S. I am talking about the “real” homeless living next to the tracks surrounded by trash and stolen bikes not the kid from Piedmont who was “homeless” last week when the dorms were closed and he was crashing on the Theta Chi couch…

    1. Howard P

      Appreciate the tongue in cheek in first PP.

      Based on what I’ve learned from meeting/interacting with those folk, would say <10% is more accurate, but true # may well live between those 2 %-ages.

      On third PP, agreed.

    2. John Hobbs

      Ken A, my concern is that while Alan is being humorous, it is too common and too easy for most of us to make assumptions and post generalities that obscure the real issue and de-humanizes the people who are for the most part just as unhappy to be in your way as you are to have to walk around them.


      1. Howard P

        Agree with that, and with Pytel’s warning, ““the issues are extremely complex and most people have no idea about the interplay with all the systems and how complex human beings are.”

        Am dealing with getting a homeless guy help (he asked me to), and the constellation includes guilt about his father’s expectations/model, failure of marriage, estrangement from all family, including his son and sibs, loss of employment/housing, alcohol, MJ, possibly early dementia/alzheimers, elevated levels of ammonia in his bloodstream, exposure, etc.

        Pytel is telling truth… no magic bullet… those who think there is, are in serious denial… should we try, despite that?  Hell yes… should we feel so omnipotent that we believe we “have an easy answer”?  Hell no!  Money/funding is NOT the full answer, not even close!

        Personal engagement… active listening and caring… resources (yeah funding does affect that) are important components, and I believe and have acted on, those elements… but even then, sometimes things are beyond any personal or government control… but it is right and just that we strive to… if someone believes differently, they need MH support and help.  They are delusional.

      2. Ken A

        Pretty much everyone knows Alan is a great guy so you are probably the only person that thinks his not just “humorous” but “real funny” posts about a local homeless guy with a pitbull on the city council or local guys begging to get money to buy comics was meant to “de-humanize” (or dehumanize) the homeless.  If we want to actually help the guys on the street it is a good idea to know a little bit about them and not just assume that they are living next to the railroad tracks since their rent went up by $50 a month or because they are spending so much on Uber getting to their three part time jobs that they can’t save up for a security deposit and first month’s rent.

        P.S. I was in camping in Death Valley before Christmas and suggested to a couple different groups of young hipsters that they move their camps to higher ground to be safe from flash floods (they both moved).  Last week before the rain I made the same suggestion to a couple homeless guys camping between the bike path and the railroad tracks east of Olive (they didn’t move and their camps were flooded)…

        1. Howard P

          Your last statement is weird… you may be correct but…

          The old portion of Putah Creek, west of W Olive is not hydraulically connected to upstream… the soils are very permeable in the area of the “encampments”… downstream too… unless there was a massive “cell”, your report does not seem credible…

          Are you lying?  It would literally take a “perfect storm” to flood the encampment areas near Olive Drive.  Or a blockage of the culverts (big box culverts) under I-80… will give you the latitude that maybe a perfect storm occurred… during heavy rainstorms, never have (35 + years) seen the channel even be filled to to first shelf, where the encampments are.  Maybe you speak truth… but think not…

          [moderator: “Are you lying?” is not really conducive to a good conversation.]

        2. Ken A

          They were not “flooded” like the kids camping in the dry river bed would have been flooded (in actual “flash flood that is common in DV), they were “flooded” in that water runs down hill in to the low area between the bike path and the RR tracks where they were camped.  Driving on I80 (not riding on the path since it was so wet) in the pouring rain yesterday I noticed that a couple of the guys had moved their tents up to “higher ground” closer to the bike path.

        3. Ken A

          UPDATE at 2:00pm today the area where the guys were camped all December is FLOODED (as in at least a foot deep all the way from the Olive exit to Mace) with one guy moved up on the bike path and another guy up closer to the tracks (must be hard to sleep when the freights roll through at night).

        4. Howard P

          You saw what you saw…  have never seen the lower creekbed more than 18-24 inches deep, in that reach… if they’re camping in the creekbed, well, that goes to the MH issues…

  3. Tia Will

    There is a segment of the community that clearly would prefer that the city make the homeless problem go away”

    I am concerned about the dehumanization depicted in this comment. What is being described as the “homeless problem” is a euphemism for human ( and sometimes canine) members of our community that some of the housed component of the community wishes were not here. Again, these are human beings, just like ourselves who for very complex and varying reasons have not been able to secure housing for themselves/and or their families. Their existence poses a problem for those who do not want to have to see or acknowledge their existence. They are not “the homeless problem”, they are human beings.

    1. Howard P

      Nothing wrong with the posting as to ‘truth’… but clearly, the concern you cite should/could be about the “segment of the community” rather than the one that speaks truth… perhaps the ‘segment’ is what you meant to be ‘concerned about’.

      As to the “segment” I share the same concerns…

      Just curious, Tia, no need to share, but are you concerned about the ‘philosophical’ aspects of “dehumanization”, or based on actually getting to know and interacting with the folk, and working to assist members of the class? My concerns are mainly based on the latter…

    2. Jeff M

      I don’t get the sensitivity here.  It is a problem because people without a home will tend to live in our public spaces and can be a general public nuisance.  There are subsets of reasons for why a person is homeless and we can be sensitive to it all, but being homeless is a problem.  And I would think those that are homeless… most of them want attention to that problem.  Very few prefer it over the alternative. If we stop labeling it a problem then it says we don’t need a solution.

      1. Howard P

        Many (sizeable minority) want to “let it be” [or, ‘let me be’]… others want things to change, but can’t get to the point of committing to abstinence/sobriety to get there… others, with assistance, want things to change for them, but can’t do it on their own…  meet these folk… talk with them… they are not scary… (well, maybe one or two individuals, but VERY few)…

  4. Eric Gelber

    The tricky part of drafting such an ordinance is making sure it is targeting behaviors and not criminalizing specific groups or curtailing their First Amendment rights. It’s clear from comments here that people view such an ordinance as targeting individuals who are homeless who are soliciting to meet their own needs—as opposed to people soliciting for charities or causes. If that’s the intent, I believe the ordinance would be vulnerable to legal challenge.

    1. Howard P

      Interesting things you bring to mind… are those who (constantly) call your home (and/or cel) presenting themselves as “we’re from microsoft and you have a windows issue that we can fix” (for a ‘contribution’), robocalls to your home saying you need medic-alert devices, folk who come to your door, excite your dog, and want you to contribute to GS cookies, a ‘mission’ in WSac, etc., etc., any folk coming to your door “less invasive” than panhandlers downtown?  Have no answer… but I have more control if they are not at my front door (I don’t own a gun, yet…), or constantly disturbing us with phone calls… 6 out of ten calls we get are robo-calls, and we are on the “do not call” lists.

      But to separate them by ‘classification’?  Think Eric has got that right.  If a panhandler downtown is too aggressive, it is easy to disengage… or ‘defend’ yourself.  Harder to do on the “housecalls”, robocalls or junk e-mail, actually.  If the spammers are ‘told off’, it seems they propagate your phone # to others of their ilk, many bogus/spoofed folk off-shore.

      As written,  have no problem with the ordinance… but shouldn’t we extend it to phone calls and home visits, theoretically?  All are “intrusions”… would actually prefer to deal with a homeless person, and offer to buy them a meal (I don’t give $ directly)… [yeah I know,different jurisdictions, but Davis has passed resolutions on State/national/global issues]

      The 15 foot limit makes sense near ATM’s… yet the phone and e-mail folk try to get your financial info also… and are more dangerous.

      Just saying…

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