Sunday Commentary: Is a Panhandling Ordinance Necessary?

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Late on Tuesday night, the city council took up the issue of the aggressive panhandling ordinance.  Council, rather than moving the ordinance forward, has asked staff to come back, revising the recommendations after the council showed no clear consensus for a direction moving forward.

At this point, it would appear that Councilmembers Lucas Frerichs and Mayor Pro Tem Brett Lee have shown the most support for aspects of the ordinance, while Mayor Robb Davis has shown the most opposition.

“This is about identifying egregious behavior,” Mayor Pro Tem Brett Lee stated. “I don’t find that problematic in us having basic regulations around that. What is problematic about saying people shouldn’t go from car to car to car in a moving thoroughfare asking for money? It’s a safety issue.

“The vast majority of spaces are still available for panhandling. We’re just making the city more liveable,” he said.

Councilmember Lucas Frerichs stated, “I really think it needs to be about balance.”  He noted that there are good and bad actors and definitely people who are engaging in conduct that is intimidating and threatening to others.  “That’s something that we need to be taking action on,” he said.

Mayor Davis’ comments on Tuesday really call into question whether this ordinance is even needed.

“I don’t believe we need this ordinance,” he said.  “I don’t believe this breaks significant new ground.  The tools that we need are (already) there.  I don’t think we need new ones, I think we need to apply the tools we have.”

Others had more nuanced concerns.  As Councilmember Will Arnold pointed out, “The idea that somebody would get their meager possessions taken away just because they had nowhere else to put them, seems really sad.”

That was a big question for Robb Davis too: “What are we going to do about people’s ability to store possessions?”

Mayor Davis pointed out that “even when people talk about aggressive behavior, it’s not 100 percent clear to me what that’s all about.”

Speaking to Chief Darren Pytel he said, “Each of the things you laid out, it struck me that you have causal mechanisms, we have a presenting situation, we have a proposed set of actions that we’ll take to
deal with that presenting situation.  What I see lacking, really across the board, and this is not a condemnation of our city, it’s a condemnation of the way really that we approach this type of public health problem – is almost zero attention on prevention.”

He noted, “(There is) zero acknowledgement that the people in these situations don’t just arrive in our community… fully formed, engaging in aggressive behavior.”

He noted that “there is secondary prevention.  You’ve (Chief Pytel) named some of it.”

The mayor pointed out, “We have resources that are coming into our community to help people with mental health challenges, with even drug and alcohol treatment.  I understand you to be saying that some people can only access them if they happen to commit a crime.  And I find that to be criminal.”

He finds it problematic that we have to have people’s conduct rise to the level of the need for incarceration before they have access to treatment.

“That’s a broken system,” he said.  “As much as I’m happy that the money is there.”

The mayor expressed concern that “we put money into a bathroom in the downtown in last year’s budget.”  He asked, “Why don’t we have a bathroom in the downtown?

“I know the answer,” he said. “Because no one wants it where they are and that’s the problem. We complain about defecation and then we say, ‘Don’t put a bathroom near where I am.’ That’s unacceptable.”

He continued: “We put money into it.  We decided to do that.  That frustrates me.”

He added, “I don’t want people defecating, it’s inhuman to have to defecate out in the open.  Do we think people choose that to anger business owners?

“People don’t want to live that way, but if we drive them to live that way, they will, so let’s get the bathroom built,” he said.

So for Mayor Robb Davis, the first steps here could be taken outside of an ordinance.  He suggested to build a bathroom and find a place for possessions.

The ordinance would simply allow for unattended possessions to be confiscated, but the council members seem to all realize that there need to be alternatives.

Councilmember Rochelle Swanson, for example, stated, “We’ve danced around the subject of lockers for a long time.  I’d like to see that come back.”

The mayor believes that they already have the resources to do all of this.  He said, “We’ve already dealt with a number of the issues that are here.”

But he added, “I want us to talk about prevention, I don’t want us to criminalize behavior.”

Not only will he not support the ordinance, he also said he won’t support the language of the ordinance.

For example, it says, “Whereas, the City Council finds that an increase in aggressive conduct throughout the City has become unsafe, disturbing and disruptive to residents and businesses and has contributed not only to the loss of access to and enjoyment of places open to the public, but has also created an enhanced sense of intimidation, disorder, fear and harmful conduct.”

He said, “What we need to say is whereas we understand that there (are) untreated mental health problems, that there (are) addiction problems, that there is trauma in people’s lives – those things lead a limited number of people to engage in behavior that is potentially unsafe.  That’s what we need to be whereasing.”

From our standpoint it seems like there are a lot of resources at the disposal of the council that were not in existence when this issue came up a year ago.  Grant money has been received for services.  The city added the homeless coordinator.  The city will be looking for money for housing and additional wraparound services.

If you can deal with issues of prevention, deal with issues of private property (which does create a nuisance), and provide restrooms (which again creates a different kind of nuisance), a lot of the concerns might be eliminated.

All of that should be implemented first.  And then, if there is a still a problem, a more limited ordinance could be considered.

—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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48 thoughts on “Sunday Commentary: Is a Panhandling Ordinance Necessary?”

    1. David Greenwald Post author

      The social services tax staff report had a rough figure on sheltered and unsheltered homeless. There is a belief that is an undercount however.

  1. Sharla C.

    There is a man that has made a tarp house using one of the picnic tables in a park next to my house.  So far he has taken steps to keep a low profile – no alcohol or visible drug use, kept the area clean and tidy, etc., so it is easy to just allow him to be.  But if he collects friends and starts to loudly party, begins trashing the area, becomes agressive, then he will have to move on.  He cannot be allowed to take over a public area and shoo away children and others who use the park.  The park has an available bathroom. But the camp sites I’ve seen in the ditch down F Street and along Hwy 113 are disturbing. Tarps, bikes and bike parts, possessions and trash strewn over a wide area.  This is an environmental and health issue.  We can’t just send in groups of volunteers to pick up the trash on a weekend, because these sites are labled toxic.  It seems laudable to have compassion for these folks, but it also seems like we need to be much more clear and direct about what is acceptable behaviour in our community and not assume that they know. The people cannot be given continual passes on the more aggregious behaviour mere because of their homelessness.  Berkeley tried this and eventually had to pass strict ordinances while providing extensive services to keep their downtown from experiencing economic collapse. Davis should learn from this.

        1. Keith O

          but it also seems like we need to be much more clear and direct about what is acceptable behaviour in our community and not assume that they know. The people cannot be given continual passes on the more aggregious behaviour mere because of their homelessness. 

          Well stated Sharla, I fully agree.

          Unfortunately, without the Social Services Tax, the city will not have the resources they need to address issues of this sort.

          Davis, we do have the resources to address this sort of stuff, it’s called the DPD.

        2. David Greenwald

          Really Keith, what are the police going to do?  Arrest them?  And then they’ll be released and come right back.  DPD is not going to do that.  Chief Pytel is completely opposed to that strategy.  You’re the one who believes he’s a great chief, and he believes that approach will not work. So I’m all hears as to how that will work.

        3. Keith O

          Really David?  I’m responding to Sharla’s comment “But if he collects friends and starts to loudly party, begins trashing the area, becomes agressive, then he will have to move on.  He cannot be allowed to take over a public area and shoo away children and others who use the park.”

          So yes David, if the squatter in the park near Sharla gets out of hand our DPD should indeed take action.

        4. David Greenwald

          Keith:

          No, you were responding to my comment on the SST and said: “Davis, we do have the resources to address this sort of stuff, it’s called the DPD.”. To which I was responding to you. And yes, if the situation in the park gets out of hand, the DPD will respond, but they realize that responding is a bandaid and they need a solution. Do you?

        5. Ken A

          Any city lets the homeless know that they are not welcome to camp in parks or on private party and break local drug and alcohol laws will not have a “homeless problem” because unlike what David says they will not “be back in a week” after getting arrested if they know they will be back in jail every time they break the law.  Most cities in CA don’t have any homeless at all since the homeless tend to mainly hang out in places full of left leaning people who provide food, shelter, and lots of cash for drugs and booze.  Most in Davis claim to care about the “environment” and never stop giving people that drive SUVs a hard time but don’t seem to care at all if half mile long section of bike path is turned into a trash pit full of garbage, stolen bikes and human waste by the homeless (If anyone wants to see what Davis “environmentalists” are fine with this they can ride along the bike patch between the end of Olive and Mace).  You will need to make sure you don’t hit a tent since the low area between the bike path is still flooded with water and the homeless have moved to higher ground (there is lots of trash actually floating in the water).  Since the CHP kicked the homeless out of the area along 113 many have moved north (to some neighborhoods like North Davis Farms where rich people live and I have heard that many “Davis Liberals” are tarting to sound like Republicans when they find the homeless pooping and leaving used needles in their backyards…

          http://www.davisenterprise.com/local-news/homeless-camps-cleared-along-highway-113-hepatitis-is-a-concern/

          1. David Greenwald Post author

            “Any city lets the homeless know that they are not welcome to camp in parks or on private party and break local drug and alcohol laws will not have a “homeless problem” because unlike what David says they will not “be back in a week” after getting arrested if they know they will be back in jail every time they break the law. ”

            Empirically false statement.

        6. Ken A

          I wonder if David can name a single city in CA with a conservative voter base and a tough on crime “Sheriff Joe” type of police force that has a “homeless problem”.  Even on the politically liberal SF Peninsula the voters and cops in Hillsborough, Atherton and Portola Valley have decided that they don’t want the homeless camping, drinking and doing drugs in town (around the $5mm+ homes) and since the homeless know this they camp where they are more welcome…

          1. Don Shor

            a tough on crime “Sheriff Joe” type of police force

            In Maricopa County Arizona, run by Joe Arpaio, there were over 25,000 homeless people in 2015.

        7. Ken A

          When you have county with many liberal areas where the people set up over 50 places for the homeless to stay even conservative Sheriff Joe can’t stop the homeless from moving where they are welcomed by residents who give them a place to stay and money for drugs and booze…

          https://www.shelterlistings.org/county/az-maricopa-county.html

          Cities without a homeless problem in CA are not “unicorns”.  David may not have any friends in Hillsborough, Ross or Granite Bay, but they do not have a “homeless problem”…

        8. Eric Gelber

          Ken A:

          I wonder if David can name a single city in CA with a conservative voter base and a tough on crime “Sheriff Joe” type of police force that has a “homeless problem”. 

          Fresno and San Diego, to name two—although, you are right in that neither city has a lawless, xenophobic, racist head of law enforcement, like Joe Arpaio. Thank goodness. But if that’s your idea of a solution, we’ve got bigger problems.

        9. Ken A

          Eric may not be aware that while San Diego is more conservative than Davis or Berkeley is not “conservative” (unlike in the early 70’s when the city elected Pete Wilson mayor).

          In the last election 56% of San Diego County voted to Clinton vs. just 39% for Trump.  San Diego also has one of the nicest homeless facilities in the world:

          http://www.sd.kroccenter.org/

          P.S. Coronado, Poway and Rancho Santa Fe in SD County are still pretty conservative and don’t have a lot of homeless

  2. Tia Will

    “I want us to talk about prevention, I don’t want us to criminalize behavior.”

    I strongly believe that Mayor Davis has this right. Primary and secondary prevention will always be more cost effective, more humane and less traumatic than will “treatment” both in medical and social models. Mere absence of the homeless, which I am sure would be the goal of some, is simply not an option. These individuals are as much a part of our community as are business owners, doctors, reporters. We need to accept that if our society chooses not to deal with developing problems before the individual is consigned to the streets, we will have to address those issues from where they are. It would seem to me that providing for life’s basic needs including defecation and storage of possessions would be a bare minimum and would likely end some, although not all of the behaviors we would like to not experience as we go about our more comfortable lives.

  3. Jeff M

    This is ridiculous.   Outlaw panhandling.  Punish it with fines and then jail time.  Do the same for the panhandler and anyone who gives them money.

    Try to start a damn business in this town and this state.  The government controls every aspect of it… restricting you to the most narrow definition of what is allowable for commerce and what is not.  You need a license to collect payment for anything and everything.

    The only exception I can think of is performing arts.  If someone wants to play music on the street with a tip jar, I think we should allow it.

    But anyone asking for money should be fined and jailed for attempting to do business in town without a license.

     

    1. David Greenwald

      You can’t outlaw panhandling. I love all these people who defend Darren Pytel, but I get the impression, you don’t actually listen to what he has to say. At several meetings including Tuesday, he laid out exactly why panhandling can’t be banned. Did you pay any attention/

      1. Keith O

        I love all these people who defend Darren Pytel, but I get the impression, you don’t actually listen to what he has to say.

        So what are you saying here David, that we shouldn’t defend Pytel from a group of our local activists because we might not see 100% eye to eye on every issue?

        I see Pytel as being a good man and a good chief. Does that bother you?

        1. David Greenwald

          What bothers me is that Pytel has addressed a lot of these issues about why you can’t just outlaw panhandling, and no one seems to be paying attention. And he’s also explained why they can’t just arrest people without having a plan (and probably funding for services).  So you think he’s a good man and a chief, great.  Then why not listen to him on this issue (where I think he’s right).

      2. Howard P

        Think a bit… if panhandling by a homeless person was punishable by incarceration, they would be housed, fed, get medical attention, reduce the availability of alcohol and drugs, and possibly get MH treatment and opportunities for simple job skills.

        Not advocating for that, but…

    2. Tia Will

      Jeff

      Really? You want to make it illegal for me to give money to the person of my choice ?  I do not choose to give money to those who panhandle because I prefer to offer food, clothing, animal food, or whatever their immediate need may be while directing them to local agencies for further help. But really, if I don’t have time to go to the pet store for food and I want to hand them a bill to help feed their animal, you are going to criminalize that ?  Please consider the legal implications of that.

      1. Jeff M

        It is against the law for you to pay a prostitute and you would be fined and arrested if law enforcement caught you doing it.

        It is also illegal for the prostitute who would also be fined and arrested.

        1. Tia Will

          Jeff

          It is true that prostitution is illegal. That law works really well to eliminate the practice doesn’t it ?  Do we really want to make panhandling or offering financial support the same kind of no win law ?

        2. Ken A

          Just like with the homeless some areas don’t care if street walking hookers are standing on the corners waiting for Johns to drive by and pick them up.  Politically conservative areas have few hookers on corners or homeless in the bushes while politically liberals areas have more hookers and homeless…

    3. Michael Bisch

      Outlaw? Ban? Punish? Incarcerate? What part of “unconstitutional” are you folks not understanding? The police chief and city attorney have made it absolutely clear that we cannot outlaw, ban, punish and incarcerate constitutionally protected behavior. Panhandling & homelessness are not illegal and cannot be made illegal through ordinance. The police chief has also made it clear that most of the enforcement actions that can be legally taken are simply impractical and/or cost-prohibitive.

       

      Meanwhile, in the face of these illegal, ineffective, impractical & cost prohibitive demands, the mayor has pointed out practical solutions…all of which have been shouted down. Pause & think about that for a moment. On the one hand an ongoing hue & cry to do something, but then strident opposition to any & all constructive solutions. Kinda crazy!

    1. Howard P

      Well, most of the work described has either not been done, or has been contracted out… now if a stream of homeless could replace planners, finance folk, engineers, water/sewer crews, engineers. police, and firefighters, yeah, we could save big time on employee costs.

    2. Michael Bisch

      I’m sorry Jeff, but you simply have not been paying attention. We implemented the Albequerque jobs program March of last year. It’s called Pathways to Employment.

      1. Howard P

        Michael… the program you allude to did not get much “play” as to public information… good to know it’s happening… one small step, but a step…

  4. Sharla C.

    Berkeley didn’t ban panhandling, but put limits on where and how people could be approached.  They banned the establishment of “panhandling businesses” from setting up shop in front of other businesses and homes.  They also did a broad public education campaign to encourage citizens to just stop giving people money.  Berkeley was spending millions on  services for homeless at the time, but the panhandling had taken over much of the shopping areas and people were starting to drive elsewhere.

    1. Jeff M

      Well – this is not an exact match to the program in Albuquerque, but it is something.  I was not aware of it.  I support that type of approach to solving the problem.

      Thanks for the info.

  5. Richard C

    One aspect of the proliferation of panhandling is that we have a lot of people who do give money to the panhandlers.  Imagine for a moment what would happen if everyone stopped giving cash to panhandlers.  How long do you think it would take for the panhandlers to figure out that what the are doing was not working?

    Perhaps the business community could start a program where there is a collection box inside of the businesses for donations to local charities.  The businesses could post notices advising people to please not give cash to panhandlers, but rather deposit money in the collection boxes which would then go to provide services for the homeless.

    I have seen that the City of Woodland has posted notices stating that it’s OK to not give cash to panhandlers. Maybe Davis could consider something similar?

    1. Howard P

      There are three (at least) theories:

      Give no aid…

      Give money…

      Take an individual out to a meal, and help direct to other services.

      #1 is callous; #2 might assuage the conscience of the giver, but does little to help, or may even ‘enable’ deleterious choices, the recipient.

      My behavior is # 3.

      1. Ken A

        I’m wondering if Howard can estimate how often people in Davis asking for money take him up on his offer to have a meal together.

        My father in law got more involved with his church and charity work after he retired and with a lot of free time and money he asks a lot of people asking for money if they want to sit down for a meal.

        He recently mentioned that on the SF Bay Area that about every 20 times he asks, a guy will fold up the “homeless need food” sign and come with him to get something to eat.

        P.S. The Bay Area has a LOT of places where anyone that shows up can get nice hot free meals every single day (with better than average food on weekends and holidays when more people come to volunteer).  I know Davis has food at the interfaith winter shelter every winter and most churches will give food to anyone that knocks on the door and says they are hungry, but is there any other place in town that serves free food on a regular basis to anyone that shows up?

        1. Howard P

          No estimate needed… 75%… some of the remaining 25% mention they just ate… one or two just turned away because food wasn’t what they were after.

    2. Richard C

      There are three (at least) theories:

      An approach that I support is to support homeless services by making donations to charities that provide these services.

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