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City of Davis struggles to rein in panhandling – gently

Crowds attend an event in downtown Davis in 2011. A recent Davis city survey found that panhandling was a top concern for downtown business owners and residents in the college town.
Crowds attend an event in downtown Davis in 2011. A recent Davis city survey found that panhandling was a top concern for downtown business owners and residents in the college town. Sacramento Bee file photo

Dino Tramontini has been visiting downtown Davis multiple times a week for years, and he said there have always been homeless people in the city. But while most homeless people in Davis previously were “harmless,” he said, some are now more threatening.

In recent visits downtown, Tramontini said he and his wife have had to avoid certain areas because of aggressive panhandlers or belongings blocking public walkways. His wife was shocked after a panhandler ran up to her and demanded she give him money, he said.

Tramontini said he wants homeless people in Davis to be treated humanely and fairly, but he also wants to feel safe with his family downtown.

“It’s a shame that there are so many people who aren’t being taken care of that they’re reduced to panhandling,” he said. “Having said that, its really been a detriment to the experience here.”

Tramontini is one of many Davis residents who sees the growing homeless population downtown as an issue. A city survey found that panhandling was a top concern for downtown business owners and residents in the college town, who said it posed a public safety hazard. Business owners said the practice is hurting business and costing them money.

The city did not provide a current estimate of how many homeless people there are in Davis today. Figures from the Yolo County Homeless Count in 2015 suggest the population is tiny compared with Sacramento and smaller than that of West Sacramento or Woodland. A total of 131 homeless people were counted one night in January 2015, including 52 who lacked shelter.

Despite the relatively low numbers, some business owners say the homeless are a visible – and costly – presence in the city’s downtown.

Lynne and Randy Yackzan, who own a downtown parking garage, said public defecation and urination costs them $60,000 each year in cleaning costs, in addition to the cost of hiring security personnel for their properties.

Randy Yackzan said he has been harassed by panhandlers downtown in the past, and that their daughter, who owns a downtown fitness studio, has had men stand outside the studio and sexually harass women during yoga classes and come in and demand to use the restroom.

“It would be great for me to be putting money toward (a solution) instead of toward cleaning up after folks,” Lynne Yackzan said.

Davis City Council members looked at different options last Tuesday to address business owners’ concerns. They also took pains to say they don’t want to criminalize homelessness.

I want them to be taken care of. I want them to fare well. But I also want to ensure everyone else’s liberties are respected as well.

Dino Tramontini, Davis resident

One measure they considered but rejected as too draconian was a “sit-lie” ordinance, which prohibits sitting or lying on the sidewalks or other public spaces. Cities with such ordinances include San Francisco, Seattle, Santa Cruz and Portland, Ore. – all of which have significant homeless populations.

City Council members expressed more interest in expanding panhandling restrictions, which bar aggressive panhandling and panhandling within 50 feet of ATMs. Council members suggested that these restrictions could be expanded to ban panhandling near vehicles and storefronts to make people walking downtown feel less threatened.

Panhandling is protected speech under the First Amendment and cannot be completely prohibited, Mayor Pro Tem Brett Lee said. However, regulating where people can panhandle could curb public safety concerns.

“You cannot outlaw panhandling, but there are some things we can do to make it more safe for the panhandler and the people that they approach,” Lee said.

Another suggestion was to create public locker spaces downtown. Some homeless people have their property stored in vacant storefront doorways and on sidewalks, which can lead to fights and other disputes, the city report found. The council talked about building public lockers for people to store their belongings, as well as creating a drop-in center for people to have somewhere to go off the streets during the day.

Lee said adding more public amenities downtown, including a public restroom, “continues to be on our upper tier of priorities.”

City Council members directed staff members to look at the legality of the options they discussed, research how other cities have implemented those measures and come back with a concrete proposal.

Sitting on the sidewalk near G and Third streets, a 25-year-old man who would only give his first name, Sam, said he hasn’t had a permanent home in six years, and has spent the past few weeks living in Davis. Sam said he’s lived in other places, like San Francisco, and doesn’t think tighter restrictions are effective because the ordinances are often more focused on fining or jailing homeless people than ensuring anyone’s safety.

Sam said he does ask for money with a sign in downtown Davis some days, and often is able to buy meals and necessities using the money he gets – usually between $20 and $50 a day. Although there are some people on the streets with mental illnesses who may be aggressive, he said, he didn’t think that was the majority of the homeless population in Davis. He also said bans on storing property in a place like parks or a vacant doorways would do much to stop their behavior.

“People feel uncomfortable seeing homeless people,” Sam said. “I think a lot of the other stuff people are saying are excuses. They just don’t want us in a place people can see.”

Tramontini has lived in Davis for 15 years, and wants assistance and housing for homeless people to remain a top priority. But, he said, guaranteeing the safety and comfort for other people downtown should also be on the list.

“It reminds me of years ago when you had smoking and nonsmoking sections. Just because there were two different sections, they still got rid of all smoking in restaurants because the smoke would travel to the other side of the room,” Tramontini said. “It’s like that. I want them to be taken care of. I want them to fare well. But I also want to ensure everyone else’s liberties are respected as well.”

Robin Opsahl: 916-321-1176, @robinlopsahl

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