Editorials

If Sacramento must take on ‘aggressive panhandling,’ then do it this way

A man and his dog sit on the sidewalk in Salt Lake City. In an effort to discourage panhandling, the city recently put up billboards urging people to give money to organizations that help homeless people instead. Sacramento is considering a more direct approach, banning aggressive begging outright near ATMs and intersections.
A man and his dog sit on the sidewalk in Salt Lake City. In an effort to discourage panhandling, the city recently put up billboards urging people to give money to organizations that help homeless people instead. Sacramento is considering a more direct approach, banning aggressive begging outright near ATMs and intersections. Associated Press

No one should have to be followed down the street by a homeless person asking for money or screamed at while having a nice dinner on the patio of a restaurant. And certainly no one should get stabbed for refusing to hand over cigarette rolling paper to a beggar – a terrifying situation one man found himself in three months ago.

But these things are happening in Sacramento, some say with increasing frequency. So it’s understandable that the City Council would follow the lead of dozens of other cities across the country and consider making it easier to charge people for “aggressive panhandling.”

Under a plan that goes before the council Aug. 29, it would be illegal to hassle people for money within 35 feet of an ATM, a gas station or along the median of a roadway. It also would be against the law to beg for money at transit stops, as well as from people riding in cars that are within 200 feet of an intersection or 35 feet of a driveway to a shopping center.

“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,” according to a city staff report discussed at July’s Law and Legislation Committee meeting.

Anyone who violates the updated ordinance could be hit with a misdemeanor charge – a stiffer punishment than the slap-on-the-wrist infraction that’s issued now.

Dion Dwyer of the Downtown Sacramento Partnership insists it’s what’s needed to bring about 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,” he told The Bee’s Ryan Lillis.

It’s a worthy goal. Quality of life is a real thing for cities to protect. But no one should see a crackdown on panhandling as a real solution to a free-standing problem.

Certainly an ordinance with more teeth would give restaurant owners more standing to call the police on a homeless man yelling obscenities at customers for not handing over a dollar. And police would have more authority to force that homeless person to stop.

But going after panhandlers is what cities do when they can’t – or won’t – meaningfully address homelessness, mental illness and substance abuse, which are the real issues. It’s a Band-Aid to minimize the fallout from sky-high housing prices, wages that haven’t kept up with inflation and, in Sacramento, a Board of Supervisors that hasn’t kept up with the demand for mental health services and addiction treatment.

There’s also a chance that this quick fix won’t work.

In recent years, judges have struck down panhandling laws similar to the policies Sacramento is considering in Ohio, Colorado, Florida, Illinois and Massachusetts. Legal challenges are brewing in Washington, D.C., Houston, Oklahoma City and Pensacola, Fla., according to the Wall Street Journal. And still other cities, seeing the writing on the wall after a 2015 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that expanded protections for free speech, have repealed their laws or abandoned plans to enact them.

Homeless advocates warned members of the Law and Legislation Committee about this last month. Councilman Jay Schenirer promised there “will be a significant and substantive conversation on full council when it comes up.”

To avoid inevitable legal challenges, the City Council should be careful to craft an ordinance that clearly defines what is and is not “aggressive panhandling,” and that focuses on behavior, not the basic free-speech right to ask for money.

And before implementing any ordinance that would essentially encourage police officers to start cracking down on homeless people, the council also should discuss how such a policy will fit in with the city’s other policies. Because right now, it’s a garbled mess.

On the one hand, Mayor Darrell Steinberg has pushed police officers to give homeless people a break and not aggressively enforce the city’s anti-camping ordinance. That has rankled some members of the Sacramento Police Department and Councilman Steve Hansen, who, after a pair of violent altercations involving homeless people in late June, called for more officers to patrol the central city to address disruptive behavior.

Meanwhile, Steinberg and others on the council have made a show of promoting busking in the central city, encouraging police to go lightly on people – homeless or not – who bang on buckets for money. In the past, street performers have been shooed away from Old Sacramento and K Street for blocking sidewalks and making too much noise.

So where does “aggressive panhandling” fit into all of this, and how will homeless people fare? Joan Burke, the director of advocacy for Loaves and Fishes, is right to worry that, without proper guidance for police, it can “very subjective.”

That’s a quality-of-life issue, too. And like so many seemingly disparate decisions that will determine the city’s livability – for all walks of life – as this latest iteration of downtown develops, it’s in the Sacramento City Council’s hands.

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