County shapes panhandling response

Sheriff's staff invites public input for a draft ordinance

By Patty Hastings, Columbian breaking news reporter

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Draft of panhandling ordinance

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The sheriff's office hopes to curb aggressive panhandling through an ordinance that would restrict where panhandling occurs and how it's done. Clark County sheriff's Sgt. Randon Walker hosted an informal public forum Tuesday evening to explain the draft ordinance and get feedback.

"We are agents for change and we're going to change what Clark County looks like," he said. The meeting was at the Public Safety Complex in Ridgefield.

The ordinance would bar panhandlers from soliciting people at ATMs, pay phones, gas stations, self-serve car washes, and building exits and entrances. It also would ban begging from people using or waiting for public transportation, and other locations considered isolated where panhandlers would have a captive audience.

Panhandlers would also not be able to approach motorists on public roadways.

The penalty for violations would be a maximum of 90 days in jail, $1,000 fine or both, but the citations would be minimal. Through an education period, Walker aims to let people know about the new rules. Once the public knows what's going on, donors will likely stop giving to beggars.

He acknowledged that after the ordinance is enacted, it's likely that shoplifting, burglaries and robberies will increase. "We're going to have to manage that," Walker said.

County residents at the forum were concerned about this caveat.

"You don't have enough sheriff's deputies to take care of my parking lots and my neighborhoods right now," said Amelia Endorf, a resident of Northeast Hazel Dell.

Cmdr. Steve Shea acknowledged that patrol numbers are below average, but emphasized the strategic use of data to increase patrols in hot spots for crime and traffic crashes.

Crime data shows that emergency calls involving transients have gone up over the last decade, and these calls tie up valuable county resources, Walker said.

Cost of emergencies

At least two deputies, along with a fire truck and an ambulance, have to respond to calls involving a transient with a mental illness, which Walker said costs hundreds of dollars per hour. Transients end up in the emergency room because there is no where else to put them, he said.

When Walker asked the Legacy Salmon Creek and PeaceHealth Southwest medical centers to estimate the cost of treating transients in the ER, they said it was around $45 million annually. Someone detoxing off drugs or alcohol in the ER can take up much-needed space for other hospital patients, he said.

The ordinance is modeled after Pierce County's, which was adopted in 2008. Walker said his research looked at panhandling ordinances throughout the state, and Pierce County seemed to have one that best matched local goals. It's broad enough to allow charitable organizations to solicit with a permit.

Activities such as hailing a taxi and requesting emergency aid are also exempt from the ordinance, which would apply to unincorporated Clark County. The city of Vancouver, for instance, already has its own panhandling ordinance.

Through education and enforcement, the ordinance aims to protect the public from the fear and intimidation that accompanies aggressive panhandling. Often customers turn away from businesses with aggressive panhandlers nearby, or the businesses have to clean up after transients. When sheriff's deputies cleaned up debris left underneath the 78th Street overpass, they hauled away two pickup-truckloads of trash.

Most problematic panhandlers, Walker explained, are alcoholics or drug addicts, or have a mental illness. Walker describes the ordinance as a push to get people to make needed changes by taking away their ability to feed their illness and moving them toward health.

"We need a process to get these people to change," Walker said.

Feeding the illness

A man known as the "Dancing Cowboy" made his home under the Northeast 134th Street overpass in Salmon Creek. He was an alcoholic who danced for donations from passing motorists, Walker said. This spring, he tried to start a warming fire and ended up badly burning his leg.

The burn led to an infection that went untreated and he eventually died an unknown number of days later -- right near Legacy Salmon Creek Medical Center.

Giving money or gift cards to panhandlers feeds their illness, Walker said. A majority of those standing on the street are not homeless. "They choose to be that way because they can't live by the rules."

Aggressive behavior among transients can escalate to more significant crimes.

A man known as "Transient X" used to aggressively panhandle near 78th Street and I-5, and caused disturbances at neighboring grocery and convenience stores. Deputies repeatedly responded to calls involving the man and asked him to leave the area. Last summer, the man murdered a clerk at a 7-Eleven in Gresham, Ore., Walker said.

The sheriff's office is a few months away from presenting the ordinance to county commissioners for adoption.

The public is encouraged to email Walker at randon.walker@clark.wa.gov with comments, stories and experiences involving panhandlers.