Will arrest for food

Advocates view ordinance outlawing ‘aggressive’ solicitors viewed as sneak attack on unhomed

This is an extended version of a story that appears in the November 23, 2017, issue.

Reacting to anecdotal complaints about dangerous homeless people, Sacramento politicians legislated with their knees jerking last week, by making it harder for people with little to ask for something.

On November 14, the Sacramento City Council approved new restrictions on panhandling within the city, and provided law enforcement additional tools to respond to complaints about people being disruptive in public parks.

Under the new laws, anyone deemed to be causing a disturbance in a park can be cited with an infraction. If that person fails to leave or is cited three times in six months, he or she can be charged with a misdemeanor.

The more controversial law is the city’s new policy against “aggressive panhandling,” which was drafted and approved without actual data about how often aggressive panhandling occurs. A city staff report says that the Police Department “has received complaints from residents, visitors, and businesses about aggressive or intrusive solicitation,” but provided no figures or statistics.

SN&R submitted a public records request for complaint data on September 20. Two months later, the information has yet to be provided.

By the city’s definition, aggressive or intrusive solicitation can mean simply “approaching” a pedestrian, or asking for money where someone is a “captive audience,” which now pertains to banks or ATMs, bus- and light-rail stops, gas stations and outdoor dining areas. It’s now also illegal to solicit on roadway median strips, and near the driveways of shopping centers, retail and other business establishments.

Changes to the city’s panhandling and parks ordinances were months in the making, as vocal business interests conducted a ground campaign in committee hearings and phone calls with their elected representatives on the Sacramento City Council.

During a Law and Legislation Committee meeting in September, for instance, numerous hotel, restaurant and retail operators pressed council members to adopt the stricter panhandling laws.

A representative for Sharif Jewelers told the committee that “Mr. Sharif was himself victimized” when someone running down K Street knocked into him during a meeting with investors. The representative claimed the collision wouldn’t have happened if police were more strictly enforcing the city’s anti-camping ordinance. It’s unclear what the incident had to do with panhandling.

Mayor Darrell Steinberg told SN&R in August that he had received calls “about how the nature of some of the homeless population has changed,” with more drug use and antisocial behavior taking place in the open. “Aggressive behavior that may not be criminal but aggressive panhandling—it’s like not letting people walk by when—I’m hearing it all the time,” he said. “And by the way, including significant violence against homeless people.”

Reminded that there were already laws against assault and threats of violence, Steinberg interjected.

“I’m going to put it to you this way, man,” he said. “You’ve got somebody in the mayor’s office now who has a long and successful track record of finding billions of dollars in resources for a better mental health system and to help people who are homeless. I’m also mayor of a city where I’m hearing, consistently, from good people that this problem has gotten worse and that the nature of this problem is different than it was even six months or a year ago. And it is my obligation to be smart and to be fair and to represent everybody. And never to demagogue people or to hurt people who are not doing anything wrong. … But we need a combination of approaches here.”

Advocates for the homeless fear the new laws will be deployed in a heavy-handed manner—to beat back an increasingly visible homeless population, while letting other violators slide.

Shortly after the vote, Grace Loescher, program director at Waking the Village, which serves homeless families, wrote on Facebook about the “newest ordinance that criminalizes poverty.”

“Council has committed to continuing to be the city that works so assiduously to hide poverty from the public eye so that the privileged will not be bothered by the unsightliness of social stratification,” Loescher wrote. “Council has committed to increasing the number of individuals experiencing homelessness in Sacramento by taking away the only means of making money for hundreds living in poverty. Council has committed to proceed with the cowardly charade that paints these ordinances as ‘public health and safety’ measures, when in fact, they are murderous to so much of the Sacramento community.”

More than two dozen people were expected to attend a Monday afternoon protest in front of the office of the Midtown Business Association, whose membership supported the new restrictions.