To ticket or serve: Debate over best way to treat growing homeless populations reaches small-town Davis

Outnumbered mayor loses efforts to prevent anti-panhandling ordinance, raise money for services

Chris Roberts has lived on the streets of Davis for more than four years.

Chris Roberts has lived on the streets of Davis for more than four years.

Photo by Dylan Svoboda

Raheem F. Hosseini contributed to this report.

The mayor of Davis is losing a public battle to treat his city’s growing homeless population with more services instead of more tickets.

On March 20, the Davis City Council was the latest in the region to adopt an ordinance making it illegal for people to ask for money in many public spaces. The ordinance is said to target “aggressive” panhandlers who don’t take no for an answer, but goes beyond legislating behavior. The council pushed the ordinance through on a 4-1 vote over the objections of Mayor Robb Davis.

In casting the only dissenting vote, Davis argued the policy’s true intent was to push the city’s homeless residents out of sight.

“I know that homelessness is not mentioned in this ordinance,” Davis said at the meeting. “But this does, I think, spring from a desire to remove from our downtown certain people. This is about homelessness. This is about a look. This is about a way of being in the world. We’re not dealing with the issues here. Yes, panhandling is not homelessness, but why are people panhandling?”

The city of Davis hasn’t been immune to rising homelessness across California. The city’s homeless population grew by 28 percent between 2009 and 2017, even as Yolo County’s homeless population dropped 6.3 percent over the same period, according to the Yolo County Homeless and Poverty Action Coalition, which conducted a survey of homeless in January of last year. These biennial point-in-time counts, required by the federal government and conducted over the course of a single winter night, are seen by experts as low estimates of the true scale of homelessness. Even still, Davis’ homelessness rate rose more than two points in two years, to 21.4 homeless people per 10,000 residents. In all, 146 homeless people were counted last year, 63 of whom were unsheltered.

California’s homeless population rose 13.7 percent between 2016 and 2017, according to a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development assessment out in December.

Davis isn’t the first jurisdiction to target panhandlers. In November, the city of Sacramento adopted a similar ordinance based on anecdotal complaints from business operators in the downtown core. Sacramento County restricted panhandling in 2014, as did the city of Woodland a year earlier.

Davis’ ordinance prohibits soliciting within 15 feet of an ATM or door to a financial institution; blocking or disrupting vehicular, pedestrian or cycling traffic; and certain activities in the median strip of a road. It also requires individuals to leave private property upon request of a police officer, the property owner or the property owner’s representative; and doesn’t allow individuals to block a sidewalk from general passage or entrance to a building.

Mayor Pro Tem Brett Lee insisted that the ordinance is targeting behavior, not homeless people. Others who spoke to SN&R say the ordinance is tackling a nonexistent problem.

“I know every panhandler in town,” said Lawson Snipes, founder and editor of the Spare Changer, a street newspaper in Davis. “We don’t have any aggressive panhandlers. The real problem is [how] homeless look. Businesses don’t like, and families don’t like, to be reminded of the symbols of poverty everywhere they go. It’s disingenuous to use that word [aggressive].”

For the most part, Christian Reed, an unhoused Davis resident and Yolo County local since 1974, said he doesn’t need to ask for money or food to survive.

“The people here are nice,” Reed told SN&R. “They take care of [the homeless]. Sometimes, I need to ask for a couple dollars. That’s it.”

Jon Adler, who lived on the streets of Davis for five years and now works with Sacramento’s homeless population, said there can be small perks to being homeless in a liberal college town like Davis.

“This is a fucking great town,” Adler said. “Everyone recycles. I can make $20 an hour recycling here. … When I was on the street, I could eat like a king. I could go to sleep and not worry about getting my head kicked in, which is not the reality in Sacramento or San Francisco.”

The city of Davis is bucking the policy norm in one way. Currently, downtown Davis has no restrooms open to the public. At the March 20 meeting, the council approved two public restrooms in the E and G Street Plazas, which are expected to be installed this summer.

Providing homeless residents with a dignified way of answering nature’s call has been a hot-button issue in other jurisdictions. The city of Sacramento pilot-tested an attendant-staffed portable restroom last year, but has yet to expand the program over concerns about the expense.

Based on his experience working with non-governmental organizations in Africa, Mayor Davis believes ending homelessness is achievable. Davis spent more than 20 years combating HIV/AIDS and malaria with NGOs, and says those epidemics are largely under control today.

“It took political will and money [in Africa],” Davis said. “That’s all it took. And we have the money. We just don’t have the political will to apply the money to these problems.”

In December, the mayor advocated putting a $50 annual parcel tax before voters. The tax was intended to create a continuous revenue stream to provide services for the growing homeless population, rather than relying on county and state grants. But community pushback was so intense that the council decided against placing it on the June ballot.

“I’m tired of people saying it’s the federal government, the county, or the state’s responsibility,” Davis said. “These people live in our town. Sixty percent of the chronically homeless population counted in our last census have been in Davis more than seven years. These are our residents. They are not being dumped here. People who are chronically homeless are living in a city for the same reason you or I live in a city—because it’s home.”