Sacramento plans to crack down on aggressive panhandling.
With the Police Department receiving complaints of “aggressive or intrusive solicitation,” the city wants to expand the list of places officers can bust people for aggressive panhandling and stiffen the penalties for those offenses.
Hostile panhandling will be prohibited within 35 feet of ATMs, at gas stations, along roadway medians and within 50 feet of public transit stops, according to a revamped city code under consideration Tuesday by the City Council’s Law and Legislation Committee.
The new code would also make it illegal for panhandlers to solicit from people riding in cars that are within 200 feet of an intersection or within 35 feet of a driveway accessing a shopping center.
Anyone who violates the new rules could be charged with a misdemeanor when cited more than twice within a six-month period. Violating the prior code was an infraction.
The changes seek to protect people from becoming “captive audiences” of aggressive solicitors and to block panhandling at places “where citizens are known to have money readily available,” according to a city staff report.
“Solicitors may seek out those people who are a ‘captive audience’ because it is difficult or impossible for those people to exercise their own right to decline to listen to or avoid solicitation from others,” the report reads.
The Police Department has seen an increase this year in calls for service related to the homeless, said Officer Eddie Macaulay, a spokesman. However, it’s unclear from police data whether calls specific to aggressive panhandling have increased, he said.
Violent attacks appear to be rare, business groups said, but they have occurred.
Just before 5 p.m. May 29, the final afternoon of the Sacramento Music Festival, a couple was walking near Front and L streets in Old Sacramento when a man asked them for cigarette rolling paper. An argument broke out and the panhandler stabbed the man in the back, according to a Sacramento Police Department report.
The victim was treated for a non-life-threatening wound and the suspect was arrested on suspicion of assault with a deadly weapon, police reported.
Dion Dwyer, director of public space services at the Downtown Sacramento Partnership, said the business group is receiving more complaints about panhandling, including aggressive behavior and fights erupting when money or cigarettes are not handed over. He said the change will help enforce “a basic level of public decorum.”
“We want to ensure that visitors and residents alike have the ability to freely move around in the downtown corridor without feeling unsafe or like they’re going to be accosted,” he said.
Emily Baime Michaels, the executive director of the Midtown Association, said her organization also has received more complaints recently about aggressive panhandling. Diners at restaurants with patios have become frequent targets, she said.
“If you have aggressive solicitation, especially when people are eating on patios, it’s really detrimental to the experience people are having,” she said. “Sacramento is still primarily a suburban market and people who come in to have an urban experience, if somebody is hassling them for money, it drives them to chose another experience.”
Sacramento County began enforcing a similar ordinance in 2015, responding to complaints from residents of suburban communities. A federal lawsuit briefly delayed the ordinance, but the suit was settled after the county agreed to allow solicitation for charitable causes.
Joan Burke, the director of advocacy for homeless service provider Loaves and Fishes, said the city should be careful not to limit free speech and raised concerns that men and women selling newspapers written and produced by the homeless could be caught up in the new rules. She said an officer’s interpretation of aggressive panhandling “can be very subjective.”
“It encourages selective enforcement, as in someone who appears homeless might be cited and someone who appears not to be homeless might not be,” she said.
Burke added that aggressive panhandling “should be discouraged” and that she agrees with most of the city’s definition of that behavior, including using abusive language and unwanted physical contact.
“But just approaching someone is not aggressive,” she said.
Paula Lomazzi of the Sacramento Homeless Organizing Committee said portions of the proposed ordinance concern her.
Her organization works with homeless people who earn money by selling the Homeward Street Journal, a newspaper that covers poverty and social issues. She said homeless vendors are told not to follow pedestrians and seek the permission of shopping center managers before soliciting near those facilities. She said police have not raised issues with workers lately and that complaints from the public are rare.
In particular, she’s concerned about the ordinance section prohibiting solicitation within 200 feet of an intersection.
“That’s really unreasonable,” she said. “Just about everywhere you stand is going to be 200 feet from an intersection.”