Members of the Davis City Council scored a big win for timid obfuscation this week by first considering common-sense measures targeting the vexing social issue of aggressive panhandling and then failing to act on them.
“Everyone is very sensitive to not offend certain members of our community,” said Brett Lee, mayor pro tempore of Davis. “We’re bending over backwards. ... In the meantime, the situation has gotten worse.”
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It was tragicomic to watch Tuesday night’s council meeting, an amazing show of misguided intentions obliterating reasoned debate and proportional action.
Davis has remained paralyzed on this issue for a year. Meanwhile, even liberal Berkeley has been able to withstand the heat from homeless advocates and hyper-moralists, adopting ordinances to prevent the obstruction of public streets for the safety of all two years ago. Sacramento passed ordinances meant to curb aggressive panhandling and harassing behavior in city parks in November.
The homeless population in Davis has grown in recent years, according to a census conducted last year. Between 2009 and 2017, the number of homeless people rose from 114 to 146, an increase of 28 percent. Local business leaders and residents say they have been alarmed by a spike in the aggressive behavior on downtown streets. There have been reports of people being accosted at ATM machines, and of streets and alleyways being blocked by homeless men and women and their possessions.
Last year at this time, council members began discussing ordinances meant to protect people using ATM machines from becoming targets for panhandlers. They considered rules designed to stop people from soliciting money in the middle of the street and from leaving trash in front of businesses. But the council hasn’t been able to make a decision – and they punted again this week.
To be fair, not all the Davis council punted. Lee wanted to act Tuesday night. Others seemed inclined to go along, albeit timidly. Mayor Robb Davis was adamantly opposed. The end result was inaction.
The ordinances considered in Davis are far from draconian. Police Chief Darren Pytel cautioned they won’t solve all problems related to aggressive panhandling. And they’ll do nothing in addressing the need for housing and services in Davis.
So why have them? To give police officers the ability to cite people for specific, aggressive behavior, Pytel said. His officers often encounter people on city streets who act inappropriately but are willing to follow the rules if they know them.
The rules Pytel and city officials envisioned would bring specificity to objectionable behavior and thereby give officers new tools for providing public safety. Arresting people isn’t the answer, Pytel said. But citing them for misdemeanors could curb aggressive behavior without sending people to jail.
The Davis ordinances would prohibit solicitation within 15 feet of an ATM. They would prohibit blocking or disrupting vehicular, pedestrian and biking traffic. They would require individuals to leave private property upon the request of an officer. Pytel said this type of trespassing is currently only prohibited by a civil injunction. The Davis ordinance would “allow for immediate relief from a persistent trespasser.”
“We’re struggling with mental-health issues, and one of the things the mental-health people tell us is not to ignore bad behavior or pass it off,” Pytel said.
It all sounds reasonable. But on Tuesday, it was as if some council members couldn’t hear a word Pytel said.
Discussion on the issue began with most council members establishing their bleeding-heart bonafides. Councilman Will Arnold started it off by saying that other people had problems with homeless people but not him. He “treats people with respect.” The implication was that anyone who supported ordinances meant to make streets safer did not respect homeless people.
But it was Mayor Davis who cemented an evening of inaction by promoting the canard that protecting pedestrians and motorists from aggressive panhandlers was “criminalizing the homeless.”
“There are some who are wanting to use (panhandling ordinances) for social cleansing, and I don’t agree with that,” Davis said. “If our intent is to make downtown inhospitable then I object to that.”
Panhandling is free speech protected by U.S. Supreme Court rulings. No one was suggesting otherwise. But not all free speech is allowed. You can’t yell “fire” in a movie theater. And not all panhandling is allowed. Cities across the nation have legally established safe zones around ATMs, for example.
Lee said the behavior targeted by the public ordinances tabled Tuesday applies to everyone – not just homeless people. Nevertheless, Lee said, the council has targeted other behavior exhibited by other groups without public outcry. Davis has, for example, placed restrictions on fraternities to curb excessive alcohol use.
Protecting citizens from aggressive panhandling is not criminalizing the homeless, despite what advocates and politicians say. If the ordinances pass in Davis, people can still ask others for food and money. They just can’t do it within 15 feet of an ATM or while blocking traffic.
So where does that leave Davis businesspeople and residents affected by aggressive panhandlers? Nowhere. The city once again kicked the can down the road and there is no timeline for when anything will be done.
“It wasn’t quite like Groundhogs Day,” Lee said. “But it was close.”