Sacramento County supervisors vote to ban aggressive panhandling

Sacramento County supervisors voted this week to ban aggressive panhandling in response to complaints from suburban business leaders and residents.

The unincorporated area is the only part of Sacramento County without panhandling restrictions, according to county officials. Citrus Heights, Elk Grove, Sacramento and other cities have similar ordinances restricting the activity.

“Hopefully, now that we’re the last jurisdiction with this ordinance, we won’t have the preponderance of panhandling,” Supervisor Susan Peters said.

Supervisors voted 5-0 in favor of the ban after little discussion and testimony from several supporters and no opposition.

The final vote on the ordinance will take place May 13, and it will likely go into effect in June. The ordinance would prohibit panhandling in areas where people being solicited feel “vulnerable to crime, intimidation and coercion,” including medians, banks, ATMs and gas stations.

Violations would be cited as an infraction, with three infractions in six months resulting in a misdemeanor charge.

Representatives of the Watt Avenue Merchants Association, the Fulton Avenue Association and the Florin Road Partnership told the board that they support the ban. They said panhandling seems to be on the rise in certain parts of the county.

Arden Arcade has a major problem with panhandlers, said Melinda Eppler, executive director of the Fulton Avenue Association.

“We have panhandlers at every major intersection. They are getting more and more aggressive,” she said. “People are feeling more and more vulnerable.”

Capt. Matt Morgan of the Sheriff’s Department said panhandling is one of the main issues raised by residents at community meetings held by the department. Current county law doesn’t allow deputies to effectively handle the problem, he said.

Jeff Donlevy of Carmichael said he gets solicited nearly every day as he drives through the intersection of Fair Oaks Boulevard and Watt Avenue. He described what happened once when he was at a gas station at the intersection.

“Someone approached me from behind; I was very scared,” he said. “I just wish they would go away.”

Joan Burke, advocacy director at Loaves & Fishes, said the ordinance is reasonable and still recognizes the free-speech rights of individuals. Courts in the past have allowed narrowly crafted restrictions on panhandling but struck down broad prohibitions as unconstitutional, according to county staff.

In particular, Burke appreciated the ordinance’s exemption for the lawful sale of goods and services. She believes that protects the sale of Homeword, a local street newspaper about homelessness, which raises $11,000 an issue for people living in poverty.

“The vast majority of homeless people are law-abiding, and a few bad apples can give an entire group of people an undeserved black eye,” she said.

Morgan said the county will start a campaign to educate panhandlers and the public about the law and alternatives to giving money to solicitors. The campaign, based on similar ones in Auburn and Citrus Heights, will suggest that people give money to organizations that help the homeless and not to panhandlers.

He said panhandlers who are arrested for other violations often have home addresses, suggesting they are not homeless. Panhandlers frequently use the money for drugs or alcohol, he said.

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