On Tuesday night the council tackled a host of issues related to panhandling and the homeless population. The issue of downtown bathrooms was not contested. Rochelle Swanson added to the staff recommendation which recommended using Portland Loo facilities at the G Street Plaza and added the second location as the E Street Plaza – a motion that passed unanimously.
The council was not prepared to vote on anything with regard to the storage of personal goods. Mayor Robb Davis pointed out that the issue of storage was an issue that came up last time they discussed these ordinances. He was recommending small space storage near Davis Community Church, but warned that not enough was understood of the needs of people who are moving around the city with large quantities of personal belongings.
Lawson Snipes suggested going with a 3 x 5 foot configuration. He said not to “waste your money on big lockers.” The problem of personal belongings, he argued, came down to four individuals who each have their own unique problems and need help rather than an ordinance.
The council saved the most controversial for last – the ordinance that would curtail aggressive and obstructive conduct. Among the key provisions, the proposed ordinance would prohibit aggressive conduct; prohibit soliciting within 15 feet of an ATM or a door of a financial institution; prohibit blocking or disrupting traffic; not allow individuals to block a sidewalk or an entrance to a building from general passage; and require individuals to leave private property upon request of a police officer, the property owner or the property owner’s representative.
This item drew heavy community opposition, as 12 people spoke during public comment on this item and only two were in favor of the ordinance.
Others pointed out that the police already have tools to deal with aggressive individuals and this targets the homeless population.
Asked Will Kelly, “What tools will this give to the police to benefit the community and what tools will it give to benefit the homeless population?”
Gloria Partida argued that we “really won’t get anywhere unless we see what is causing the problem.”
Carolyn Stiver, representing the Davis Chamber, supported the ordinance. She made the point that “nowhere in that paragraph does homeless appear, we are addressing a behavior and not a state of being.”
She read, “Increased aggressive conduct has contributed to the loss of and access to of spaces open to the general public. Some exhibited behaviors curtailed business by creating fear in employees, shoppers and visitors who have expressed their concerns to both the city and our organization.”
On the other hand, Lawson Snipes took exception to the word “aggressive.” He stated, “We don’t have aggressive panhandlers. What we have are sign flyers.”
Chief Darren Pytel responded to the idea that there are already existing laws for most of this. He said, “This would make a different type of conduct prohibited.” He added, “There’s no state law that deals with panhandling near an ATM.”
Mayor Pro Tem Brett Lee argued that this is not about homelessness, it is about behavior. He added it is not about criminalizing homelessness, it is “really about this behavior that we’re trying to prohibit.”
He said, “We are talking about exceptional case, exceptional cases not of homeless folks, but exceptional cases of behavior.
“I think these are reasonable expectations for our community,” he said. “This is not about limiting free speech in terms of protests or anything like that.”
He added, “I’m optimistic that we’ll pass staff recommendations.”
Councilmember Rochelle Swanson agreed. She said, “It is bothersome that nothing in here says homelessness.” She pointed out, “Most aggressive people are not homeless and are not from Davis.
“Their stories tend to be more about aggressive behavior,” she said. “This is a behavior issue.”
Councilmember Lucas Frerichs argued that some folks’ behavior is intimidating and threatening to others. He said, “We have made fair amount of strides toward dealing with homelessness in our community.” But he added, “No question there’s much more work to do.”
Like his colleagues, he stated, “This is a behavior issue.”
Councilmember Will Arnold said that “this ordinance will not curb panhandling.” Many other steps are necessary to be able to address the root causes of some of this behavior.
He said this ordinance will not solve all of these issues, but it does include “limited but important tools.” He said, “I believe it deserves our support not despite our compassion but because of it.”
The dissent came from Mayor Robb Davis.
He said that while homelessness is not mentioned in this ordinance, “this is about the homeless look.” He said, “It does, I think, spring from the desire to remove from our downtown certain people.”
The mayor said he doesn’t say that without evidence, “I say that because that’s what people are telling me.”
He said people are saying to him, “We need to decide how many homeless people we can deal with and find dozens of ways to get rid of the rest.
“We are not dealing with the issues here,” he said. “Why are people panhandling? What safety net has been frayed and broken? What need is not being met? How is it that they end up on the street asking for money? Who wants to do that?” He said, “There’s an alienation here.”
Like Lawson Snipes, he said, “I don’t see the aggressiveness related to panhandling. I see aggressiveness in the downtown. I see people screaming.” What he sees are people who are scaring even him, those who are severely mentally ill. He said, “We’ve systematically chosen not to treat them. If you want to talk about aggressive behavior let’s talk about untreated mental illness.”
Mayor Pro Tem Brett Lee would respond that he doesn’t “think any of us believes this is a solution.” He also pointed out that the hostile emails are not limited on this issue, that they got hostile emails for bathrooms downtown and the same thing about lockers.
“That’s just kind of part of the deal” he said. “We voted to put two restrooms downtown.”
He added, “I think we’re able to think about what’s reasonable and use our best judgment.
“I feel like overall tonight, we’ve moved the city forward,” Brett Lee said.
The council voted 4-1 to approve the aggressive panhandling ordinance over the objection of Mayor Davis.
—David M. Greenwald reporting