It is a good idea, yet an overly simplistic one. The Clark County Sheriff’s Office is examining ways to curb aggressive panhandling and plans to ask county commissioners to enact an ordinance that would give law enforcement additional powers in dealing with troublesome panhandlers.
If only it were so easy. That’s not a criticism of the sheriff’s office nor of sheriff’s Sgt. Randon Walker, who recently talked about the issue at a public forum. But it is a nod to the fact that, once we begin discussing panhandling, there is a large range of tangential issues that must also be targeted.
We’ll start with the basics. As presented by Walker and reported in The Columbian by Patty Hastings, the sheriff’s office is developing an ordinance that would:
• Ban panhandlers from soliciting citizens at ATMs, pay phones, gas stations, self-serve car washes, and building exits and entrances.
• Ban begging from people waiting for or riding on public transportation.
• Ban panhandlers from approaching motorists on public roadways.
“We are agents for change, and we’re going to change what Clark County looks like,” Walker said at the public presentation. The new law would apply to unincorporated areas of Clark County, as Vancouver already has a panhandling ordinance, and Walker said it will be modeled on an ordinance adopted by Pierce County.
By itself, each plank of the Clark County proposal appears logical and defensible. But that likely is where logic ends. Because the issue of panhandling often is tied to homelessness, and the issue of homelessness often is tied to mental illness. Throw in drug use and alcoholism, which often play a role in leading somebody to beg for money, and there is a smorgasbord of socio-economic issues that cannot be solved by a county ordinance.
Reality would seem to dictate that the sheriff’s office does not have the officers needed to respond to every call of aggressive panhandling, nor does it seem that an ordinance will prevent panhandlers from simply moving to another location. The ordinance is worthy of consideration, but it should not be viewed as an end-all solution to people’s begging for a living. “They choose to be that way because they can’t live by the rules,” Walker said, which raises the question of why we should expect panhandlers to follow a new county ordinance.
In truth, panhandling will continue as long as people are in need and as long as the practice is reasonably lucrative for them. David Spears II, who then was an economics student at George Fox University in Newberg, Ore., spent two weeks during the summer of 2012 panhandling near a freeway exit in Oregon City. He earned an average of $11.08 per hour, which was more than his previous job working mall security. “I was really surprised by the vibrant generosity people showed me,” Spears said. “How do we know this generosity is actually effective?”
Therein lie the twin problems of panhandling: People are willing to donate, yet such donations do not address the underlying problems. In many cases, the money goes directly toward drugs or alcohol.
Walker, from the sheriff’s office, emphasized that a new ordinance could raise awareness and encourage people to stop enabling panhandling by handing out money. That would be a start. Citizens should be encouraged to donate to reputable charities in the community that work with the poor, the homeless, and the mentally ill, rather than hand their money out a car window. But the conditions that lead to panhandling will not go away with or without a county ordinance. They are far too complicated.