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