With their crumbled cardboard signs, emblazoned with messages of need, Clark County’s panhandlers are an acknowledged sight on many heavily trafficked street corners and freeway offramps.
Other panhandlers take a more direct approach and verbally ask for spare change from passers-by. Whatever the approach, the message is the same: Money would be helpful. And while that can be a nuisance for many, the reality is it’s also a difficult-to-regulate form of free speech.
That’s what Sgt. Randon Walker of the Clark County Sheriff’s Office is learning as he reworks a draft ordinance that aims to place tighter restrictions on panhandling. A recent federal court ruling striking down much of the language contained in the ordinance has forced Walker to rewrite it.
Walker proposed the ordinance, his “pet project,” last year. County commissioners held a work session on the matter, while Walker shopped the idea at a community open house. He said curbing panhandling would help direct homeless people to the county’s social service programs.
“We have people on the street who are obviously broken,” Walker said. “We’re enabling them.”
The ordinance was inspired by one that was proposed in Pierce County and another in Boise, Idaho. The American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho successfully challenged the legality of the ordinance at the beginning of the year, however. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the panhandling ordinance was overly vague and would curb First Amendment protections in publicly owned areas.
Walker has been tweaking his proposed ordinance to take into consideration the court’s ruling. He is stripping the ordinance of language that would regulate the times of day when panhandling would be allowed and the places where it could be done.
Instead, the ordinance says that if a person is approached by a panhandler and says “no,” the conversation must end.
Under the ordinance, a person soliciting money also couldn’t shout at or corner someone or use profane language. Violators would risk 90 days in jail or a $1,000 fine.
Walker has been working with county attorneys to ensure the document expressly spells out what aggressive behavior is. The previous draft ordinance placed physical parameters on panhandling, disallowing it near cash-dispensing machines, bus stations and in parking lots when people were exiting or entering their vehicle. Those restrictions were the ones challenged in court by the ACLU.
“Instead of codifying location,” Walker said, “we’re codifying behavior.”
Another companion ordinance would prohibit panhandling in traffic right-of-ways — such as at onramps and offramps — to regulate people obstructing roadways.
The discussion of how to regulate panhandling has been ongoing in the state for 20 years, said Doug Honig, spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington. In that time, many laws have been struck down for being overly broad.
“Panhandling is essentially saying that you are in need, and asking other people for help,” Honig said. “It’s a form of free speech, and it’s protected under the First Amendment.”
Many panhandling ordinances, he said, simply rehash laws that are already on the books. It’s already illegal to confine someone or aggressively coerce a person into handing over money, for example.
“You don’t need a special panhandling law to deal with that,” he said.
Homeless advocates have their own concerns about any ordinance that restricts a person’s ability to ask for assistance.
Andy Silver, executive director of the Council for the Homeless, said anti-panhandling laws have a tendency to criminalize homelessness. He also worries that panhandling laws foster the notion that homelessness is something that should be banished.
“I think people have to rationalize why others are struggling in such a visible way,” Silver said. “And that tends to result in people assigning blame.”
Walker said he’s tried to be receptive to concerns from leaders within the social service community. He sees his ordinance as a way of pushing more homeless people — many of whom he said are addicted to drugs or alcohol — into local assistance programs.
“In my experience, people who are addicted are not going to change their behavior until something changes in their environment,” said Walker, who hopes to bring his ordinance before commissioners later in the summer. “Until we cut off the ability for people to feed their mental illness, we won’t see a change.”
That may not be so easy, said Silver, who provided input on the draft ordinance. There are roughly 700 homeless people in Clark County — though the number is likely higher — and not enough resources to go around, Silver said. Of the homeless families in the county, about 90 of them have children.
A fair approach, Silver said, would be banning aggressive and other unsafe forms of panhandling. But the ordinance would have to be written narrowly to accomplish that, he added. A broad ordinance, aside from possibly being unconstitutional, would likely put too much of a burden on local social service organizations that are already contending with housing waiting lists that are dozens of names long.
“Resources are stretched too thin,” Silver said. “If we want to get to the root of the problem, issuing someone a ticket isn’t the way to go about it.”