Over the raucous objection of homeless activists, the Sacramento City Council this week unanimously adopted a pair of ordinances that target aggressive panhandling and unruly behavior in city parks.
The new regulations respond to mounting complaints from business owners and tourism groups about aggressive behavior, mainly in the central city. City police had originally proposed harsher restrictions over the summer, but eased some of those controls in response to concerns from the public.
Mayor Darrell Steinberg said Tuesday night that supporting the ordinance was “a very close call for me,” calling the proposal “imperfect.”
“If this ordinance was brought forward in isolation, I would oppose it as incomplete and inefficient,” the mayor said, adding that an outright panhandling ban would be “unfair.”
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However, the mayor said homelessness is increasingly becoming a public safety issue and that he hears often from residents and small business owners about threatening behavior and drug use by transients.
Steinberg is spearheading a $108 million partnership with Sacramento County that will fund intense outreach to homeless men and women, including mental health and substance abuse treatment. He also has a goal of moving 2,000 homeless people off the street and has pushed to expand the city’s shelter system.
“We are in fact making unprecedented efforts in our city and our community to get people off the streets,” the mayor said. “If we’re going to ask for patience from the broader community as we deal with it, because it’s going to take some years to feel a positive impact, then we have to respond to some of the behavior out there that is anti-social, that is illegal and is in fact threatening to people.”
Under the new ordinance, aggressive panhandling will be banned 30 feet from ATMs and public transit stops, and from people pumping gas at fuel pumps. Police will also crack down on panhandling on medians and near outdoor dining areas at restaurants.
A once-proposed ban on aggressive panhandling within 200 feet of intersections was removed.
Those who violate the ordinance could be cited with an infraction. A third offense within six months would result in a misdemeanor.
In city parks, police will be able to remove anyone who violates existing rules – including drinking alcohol and littering. If people refuse to leave a park or return within 24 hours, they can be cited with an infraction. Those who violate the ordinance three times in six months would be subjected to misdemeanor arrest.
“If we allow our parks to become places where people don’t feel safe to recreate, then we’re losing something very special in Sacramento,” said Councilman Jeff Harris.
Homeless activists argued that the new rules were too harsh. Four people were removed from the City Council chambers during the Tuesday night hearing for raising their voices, and activists yelled at business group leaders as they left City Hall.
Bob Erlenbusch, executive director of the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness, said passing the ordinance would provide “a distraction from the good work that you’ve already started in earnest.” Erlenbusch applauded the city for partnering with Sacramento County on the outreach program.
“Turning around a week later and passing an ordinance that further criminalizes homeless people is counterproductive,” Erlenbusch said.
Grace Loescher, a Sacramento resident who works with homeless youth, called the ordinance an “unsightly poverty law” that would take away the only means many people have to support themselves.
“It’s an effort to make wealthy people feel a little less uncomfortable when they walk down the street,” she said.
Hotel and restaurant owners have expressed growing frustration with what they describe as an increasingly hostile environment. They say they fear stories about such behavior may threaten business investments and growth in the central city.
More than a dozen business group leaders and developers attended Tuesday’s hearing and stood together when Steinberg asked to hear from supporters of the ordinances.
Mike Testa, CEO of tourist board Visit Sacramento, said “we’ve seen a tremendous rise in aggressive and belligerent behavior throughout our city.”
“Aggressive behavior has not only caused a significant impact to our business community, but also to perceptions and our ability to continue this momentum for downtown,” said Michael Ault, head of the Downtown Sacramento Partnership business group.