Panhandling Regs Passed Amid Promises Of Litigation – March 24, 2010

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Chris Hoff

Eye Correspondent

ARCATA – The City of Arcata took the final step in attempting to curb the behavior of panhandlers last Wednesday, March 17 – a step critics call a violation of people’s free speech.

The council passed an ordinance by a 3-2 vote which takes effect April 16, 30 days after Wednesday’s meeting. The ordinance bans aggressive panhandling citywide and defines areas where all solicitation would be prohibited. Those areas are within 20 feet of an entrance to businesses, ATMs, street intersections and bus stops. Other areas where solicitation will be prohibited include pedestrian overpasses, like the one connecting Northtown to Humboldt State.

The ordinance’s City Council supporters said it is meant to stop a problem of rude and aggressive behavior on the street. In February, the council introduced the ordinance with a four to one vote, councilmembers Mark Wheetley, Susan Ornelas, Michael Winkler and Alex Stillman voted to introduce it, and Councilmember Shane Brinton dissented.

Last week, Stillman, Wheetley and Winkler voted to pass the ordinance and Brinton and Ornelas voted against it. Brinton has consistently opposed the ordinance, while Ornelas expressed doubts at the last minute about the inclusion of non-profits in the solicitation ban.

“I’ve made every criticism of the ordinance I could possibly make,” Brinton said. “Now it’s time to see if the ordinance works.”

Brinton said the ordinance restricts freedom of speech, is vague and difficult to understand, and will not work.

He said there are real concerns about aggressive panhandling, and knows a solution needs to be found.

“I think there was broad support for addressing the problem,” he said. “I don’t think there was broad support for the ordinance.”

Brinton also disagrees with the assertion that the business community as a whole wants the ordinance.

“I don’t feel like there was a huge push from the business community,” he said.

The business community and the public want a solution to the problem, but Brinton doesn’t think the ordinance does that. He said the ordinance doesn’t fix anything and he doesn’t change his advice to the public.

“My message to the public is the same as it was before this was passed,” he said. “If you think your rights have been violated, call the police.”

Brinton is concerned that the ordinance itself violates people’s rights.

“I believe it violates the spirit of the constitution as I understand the constitution,” he said. “However there are a variety of rulings on both sides of the issue.”

Eric Hedstrom spoke at Wednesday’s council meeting about some of those rulings, and he is confident there will be a lawsuit against the City.

Hedstrom works for the Department of Health and Human Services as an information technology specialist. He is opposed to the ordinance because he said it is unconstitutional.

“This law prevents me from soliciting for charitable organizations and from soliciting to fight this ordinance within certain areas,” he said. “They took my rights away.”

He understands the City is trying to address a problem, and he doesn’t want to dismiss the problems people have had with panhandlers. But this ordinance isn’t the right solution he said. Instead, Hedstrom points out how people can still panhandle legally under the ordinance.

“The way they defined panhandling—it is an exchange of goods at that time and place,” he said. “If I ask you to give [something] to me at a different time or place I can still do it.”

At Wednesday’s council meeting, Hedstrom told the council his research suggested the language of the ordinance wouldn’t stand up to a legal challenge. He detailed a number of cases with similar language where cities have lost lawsuits, or had to change language of ordinances.

“Passing this law was a grave error on the City Council’s part,” he said. “If they enact this law, they will get sued.”

City Attorney Nancy Diamond, acknowledges the potential for a lawsuit, but is comfortable with the ordinance.

“Threats are made all the time,” she said. “But the City has never been sued upon enactment of an ordinance.”

She said often threats to sue are an emotional response when people disagree with the council’s decisions. She said it is impossible to know what will happen in the future or what challenges will come up.

“I think it’s been drafted in a way that is consistent with current judicial interpretation of the law,” she said. “Judicial opinions do change over time.”

She said without knowing a specific challenge that could come against the ordinance, she can’t say how it will hold up.

“Everybody’s having a fun time coming up with ‘what ifs’,” she said. “We’ll have to analyze them as they arise.”

Much of how the ordinance would be enforced would have to be done on a case by case basis, she explained. The example of Girl Scouts has been discussed, and Diamond said since they are selling something they are not covered by the ordinance. However that doesn’t mean a panhandler could bypass the law by selling something.

“I would have to look at that when it happens,” she said. “Is that a legitimate offer of sale or not?.”

She also noted that circumstances change, and if a challenge that hasn’t been thought of should develop, the council can take new action.

“If there is a challenge, the Council can decide at that time what they want to do,” she said.

However, based on the concerns raised so far, she said, “I remain confidant that the ordinance is OK.”

Councilmember Winkler said he trusts Diamond’s legal analysis that the ordinance is constitutional. He said the ordinance is necessary.

When Winkler was campaigning for office, he said people repeatedly told him they felt unsafe and uncomfortable downtown because of panhandlers.

“We need to say certain behavior isn’t acceptable,” he said.

“I know there are people who don’t agree with it,” Winkler said. “But the balance when I was talking to people while campaigning was very different.”

Winkler said the ordinance needed to cover areas of town that he describes as inherently coercive. Some of those areas are when you are at a bus stop, getting in or out of a car or leaving a business.

“I’ve been in those situations myself,” he said. “And I didn’t feel like I had a free choice.”

He described a situation where someone asked him for money at a bus stop. He told the person “no”, but it made him uncomfortable that the person was still hanging around.

For Winkler the discussion needs to also be about services for people in Arcata. He said services need to be available so panhandling isn’t the only option for people to meet their needs.

“I want to encourage people to get their lives together,” Winkler said. He said this law is something that encourages people to do that.

At Wednesday’s meeting all attending members of the public addressed the council asking them to not pass the ordinance as it is written.

Though the speakers who addressed the council spoke against it, one lady approached Mayor Stillman during the break and thanked her for the vote.


5 Responses to “Panhandling Regs Passed Amid Promises Of Litigation – March 24, 2010”

  1. Sian Olen

    Okay, here’s my take on the whole thing…. I’m 22 years old, was born and raised here, birthed in Mad River Hospital, and have lived in the four conjoining towns at various times in my life, and the local population of panhandlers and transients are pushing me away from my HOME! I am disgusted, angry, and sick and tired of people asking me for money on the streets that I used to be able to walk down as a child and feel safe and comfortable. More often than not, the people asking me for money are those who say, “Spare any change for nug, beer, cig, etc.?” No, not if THAT’S the reason they’re asking for money! I would feel a lot more compassionate if these people were obviously in need, but most of the time when they ask they ARE drinking beer, smoking a cigarette, and stuffing their faces with expensive food from a local restaurant. In my opinion, if they were truly “in need,” they would spend their “spare” money on food and/or water, not these commodities that only grant them minute and horridly temporary pleasure.

    I’m honestly uncomfortable walking down the simple store-front streets around the Plaza because of the frequency, attitude, and utterly uncaring demeanor of these people, and have also felt that by saying “no” the reaction is a little less forgiving than people assume. And it’s way too seldom to be able to get out of a car in front of Bubbles or Don’s and not have a group just WAITING to ask for change… A friend and I tried our own little experiment once; we walked down H street, one of the more panhandle-trafficked areas, sporting Hoover pockets, and each group we came to (we counted 8 on such a short, commercial street!) asked us if we could spare any change. The last group we came to at the corner of Garden Gate asked for money, just as the rest, so we said, “We don’t have any money, hence the pockets.” They responded by looking us up and down, saying that we LOOKED like we had some money somewhere, maybe in our wallets and purses, judging by “your clothes and the fact that you’re clean (whatever that means), and you look like you can spare some. Got a quarter?” NO! One of them had the audacity to say, “You’re not from here, are you? You don’t understand what it’s like…” Guess again. My mom and I were homeless when I was growing up, living in the old button factory and PAC which is now the Play House, but we didn’t beg for change and she didn’t use her four-year-old daughter to gain sympathy; she did JUST FINE getting food boxes and stamps, and I grew up JUST FINE.

    I don’t think this ordinance is offending freedom rights, considering these people aren’t advertising anything and are merely bumming others for money with questions. Their signs have nothing to do with merchandise or items, just their own pity. I don’t, however, think that it’s strict ENOUGH. It seems the concerned areas are limited solely to business fronts and bus stations. If people can’t smoke within 30 feet of a store front, people shouldn’t be allowed to panhandle any closer. But, really, what IS 20 or 30 feet anyway? That’s nothing, and panhandlers and transients will just go outside that boundary, or find some other place where public traffic is frequent. Even family-oriented, local parks and the Plaza have become places where people are uncomfortable going to because these rude, foul-mouthed individuals simply don’t care about the environment, people around them, or anyone who hears them, they only care about walking wallets and suckers for sympathy. Some purposely litter the area around them (and don’t clean up their messes), take up sidewalks so individuals literally have to walk around their mounds of luggage and bodies to “fish” for those to ask, and I always wonder, “What happened to loitering laws?” “What happened to littering laws?” “What happened about public nuisance laws?”

    In regards to the “services need to be available so panhandling isn’t the only option for people to meet their needs,” some of them DO take advantage of our local Endeavor to the extent that they DO loiter around there; I’ve noticed several families turn away from the doors because of a suspicious individual asking for change, which is just completely sad… Also, if services are made more available, then this just brings about more opportunity for more transients and panhandlers to come here, knowing how lenient and easy it is to GET services in this area. This will only encourage the homeless lifestyle as people are able to cheat the system, and STILL panhandle for those “extra goods.” People are greedy in nature, and allowing greed only makes it worse.

    Okay, I could go on and on, so I’ll end it here.

    I do want to say, however, that I realize SOME of the panhandlers are legitimately in need, and it’s usually pretty easy to point them out in a crowd of OTHER panhandlers, but the ones who ARE a public nuisance and are rude about “not sharing the love” need to be dealt with as the main issue of the problem.

    Thank you for the opportunity to share my thoughts.
    -Sian Olen.

  2. I completely understand the issue with the panhandlers and the nuisance that they CAN be. I almost agree with the new ordinance but I also think there are already laws in place that aren’t enforced. So I ask, are the new ones going to be enforced? I’m originally from Los Angeles but i have been here for 14 years now. Every where you go you have homeless people. It is a product of our social short comings that’s not going away. But should we treat them like the Taliban and give freedoms and rights of the whole to “protect” ourselves from a few. Is that American? Are they violent or threatening? Probably not. Are some people rude? Yes but again that’s part of life any where you go-some people are just rude. Creating Laws that are unenforceable wastes my tax payer dollars and I’m not down with that.

    p.s. Just the other day a homeless man that clearly had mental problems shoved my 4yr old son as my family and I (wife and 7 yr old daughter) where walking by to get into our car across from the Arcata Theater Lounge. Although, my initial reaction of getting in the guys face and preparing to stomp him into the sidewalk was wrong, it subsided once I realized he was mentally ill. But it still didn’t change real danger that he presented to my child at that moment or did it stop his tears from falling. The man could have just as easily shoved my son into “G” street traffic. That said, something needs to be done but I still don’t support the ordinance as written.

  3. Erik

    I think Amosis’ initial and very human parental reaction, the one he suppressed in the name of being a decent person, wasn’t wrong at all. It was exactly what a parent ought to do when their child is assaulted, and it might have helped deter the perpetrator, mentally ill or not, from an incredibly dangerous habit that could result in the next kid actually being pushed into traffic.

    If you don’t believe in personal violence, fine–but at least call the police, and push the issue until the street freak (for me, he lost his right to respectful language when he pushed and terrified a child) is picked up and jailed or hospitalized as appropriate.

    P.S. On the advice of my wife, who is smarter and fairer than I am, I deleted the following opener from my post: “Even a mentally ill person can learn to quickly associate “assaulting other people’s children” with “instant, incapacitating pain followed by a trip to jail and/or the mental hospital.”

  4. Fala Zuki

    NEVER again will I give a cent to a bum. NEVER!

  5. BubbaBighatt

    You all don’t get it. They’re ill, they can’t help the way they act. That said, they need to be confined or at least FORCED to take their medicine. I know this from personal experience. My father-in-law was a wonderful, outgoing, happy man when he was on his meds. But he’d stop taking them because he “didn’t need them anymore.” Then in a couple of months he would turn into a reclusive, angry, terrified man tormented by constant voices in his head, and he’d move out into the streets. He should have been forced to take medicine, but all the homeless advocates made sure that didn’t happen, “he’s got rights.!!


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