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Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Sebastappeal - October 2011


Panhandling has been on the rise in Sebastopol over the last several months.  It’s evident by the repeat appearances of certain people at highly visible locations in town: our major intersections; driveways to shopping centers; key turns on our streets; ATMs at banks; prime retail businesses; civic parking lots; restaurants; and so on.  Often, the panhandlers hold cardboard signs with various messages to passers-by.

 This issue was first brought to the attention of our City Council by a letter from our Chamber of Commerce, dated June 22, expressing its concerns about the increase in the presence of the homeless and panhandling in town.  The Chamber had been contacted by several businesses, property owners, and residents about the gravity of the situation. 

Local businesses told our Chamber about their concerns about vagrants urinating in public, blocking entrances to businesses, causing distractions at major corners, using foul language and exhibiting abusive behavior towards customers and owners.  Shoppers, many of whom are seniors, reported that they felt unsafe walking from their parking places into their favorite stores. “This problem is creating an unhealthy, unsafe, unattractive and uncomfortable situation for consumers who wish to shop it town. Businesses have expressed that revenues are suffering, most recently some by 10%,” states the letter. 

The business community asked the City what it can and will do to help.  Within one month of receiving the letter, the Council discussed the issue at our meeting on July 19, with our Police Chief, community leaders, business members, and advocates for the homeless present. 

Chief Weaver explained that panhandling is one person asking another person directly for money or something of value in public. He later writes, “There are no applicable Federal or State laws regarding panhandling. Counties and Cities have passed ordinances against general panhandling; however, the Courts have repeatedly struck down these ordinances as violating the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech.  The Courts have upheld carefully crafted ordinances that ban ‘aggressive panhandling’ which is generally defined as continuing to ask for money after being declined, following individuals to ask for money, using threatening gestures or body posture, etc.  The ordinances that are allowed ban panhandling in certain locations, generally near intersections, ATM machines, bank lobbies, etc.  The idea is to address areas where people aren’t free to avoid the solicitations.”

The Council discussed several next steps that could be helpful [according to my notes]: for Chief Weaver to speak to the business community about how to respond; for advocates for the homeless to contact various local providers of services to relay the concerns of our businesses and to delineate community standards of acceptable behavior; for referrals to be made as appropriate, such as to the Task Force for the Homeless Youth.

The dialogue continues into the Fall because the problem seems to be getting worse.  Included now are complaints about: private benches being occupied exclusively all day long; vandalism of our new public restrooms; private parking spaces being used all day long; drug dealing at these locations where people congregate; dumpsters being used as bathrooms; belligerent people confronting visitors to our downtown. 

“Most people would like to take care of the homeless and most people don’t want the community ruined by criminal behaviors that often occur after aggressive panhandling is tolerated...This is a universal issue that we’re not going to solve overnight. We don’t want to attack the homeless. We want to cut off the source [of money to panhandlers]…” are some of the comments heard from [unnamed] business people.

As compassionate people, we do want to respond. As a generous community, we have given money to the outstretched hands.  One recommended action, supported by the Chief and the Chamber, is to donate to charities or services that provide for the truly needy.  Another is to donate time at a food bank or at a community hot meal.  In this tough economy, some people are “down on their luck” while others claim to be, but are not, legitimately needy, according to Chief Weaver.  In our current situation, these suggested responses are both humane and effective.

The City Council will consider a panhandling ordinance, tentatively set for October 18.  Please check the City website or call City Hall to confirm the date and review the staff report.