Getting a grip on panhandling

They haunt downtown street corners, harassing passersby for spare change, and drift throughout the city seeking a dollar “for gas for my car” or “a bus ticket to Oroville.” They are panhandlers, the seasonal beggars whose ranks rise and fall depending on the weather and time of year.

Some downtown business owners want them removed from the sidewalk, where they may scare away potential customers. Sounds simple enough, right? Well, there is a little problem called the First Amendment, that sticky Bill of Rights clause that guarantees us free speech.

Writing an ordinance to control panhandling is no problem, says Chico City Attorney Dave Frank. Implementing such legislation, however, is another story. This week the Internal Affairs Committee of the City Council discussed panhandling regulations and in the end threw the matter back to Frank with a request to draw up enforceable regulations to thin the legions of beggars or at least control their actions.

Frank said that first the council must “put together findings that justify this type of legislation,” then write the legislation and finally—and most important—figure out how implement it.

City Manager Tom Lando said an ordinance would be aimed at “aggressive” panhandling.

“I don’t want us to deceive ourselves,” Lando said. “With non-aggressive [panhandling], there is nothing we can do about it.”

Frank said aggressive begging goes beyond a simple verbal request and includes “in-your-face” demands and following people down the sidewalk, actions that border on assault.

Frank said there are two approaches—banning where begging may take place and regulating the manner of begging, no matter where it occurs.

City such as Santa Cruz and Los Angeles have outlawed begging in certain areas, such as bus stops or areas close to ATM machines, those places that have captive audiences.

“Say you have a ban on begging within 15 feet of an ATM machine,” Frank explained. “At 16 feet it’s OK. So what kind of conduct is acceptable at 16 feet?”

Frank said it is also important to give consistent warnings to everyone when trying to implement regulations on begging and that solicitation, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses going door to door, and peddling—trading wares for money—have been protected by the courts. Street musicians probably fall under the peddling protection, Frank said.

“If you’re looking for a scheme to address all circumstances, you’re gonna bog down [legally],” he warned.

Chico Police Sgt. Dan Fonseca told the council the state Penal Code already prohibits aggressive panhandling, but the victim must sign a complaint and be willing to testify in order for the police to get involved. Short of that, the officer can take no action.

“People can stand at Second and Main and ask for money as long as they are not aggressive,” said Fonseca.

He said it would be helpful to officers if certain areas were designated as no-begging zones, because then there would be no need for a citizen complaint for officers to act.

Tami Ritter, executive director of the Chico Community Shelter Partnership, suggested the downtown merchants and service providers like hers, the Jesus Center or the Salvation Army form a program that would offer gift cards that could be given to beggars and redeemed for certain social services.

Local merchants have tried programs of their own, but they tend to be short lived in part, suggested Lando, because the panhandling problem is cyclical. When there are fewer beggars, such programs tend to fall apart.

Katrina Davis, director of the Downtown Chico Business Association, said police presence in the downtown does much to ward off the more aggressive beggars.

Councilmember Coleen Jarvis said she is supports an ordinance but wants to make sure it “separates aggressive [begging] from straight solicitation. And I would include location as something to look at as well.”

Frank said he would get Alicia Rock, assistant city attorney, working on language for an ordinance, which would then be brought back before the entire City Council.