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Committee will address panhandling issues

The Constitution guarantees your right to ask a buddy for a dime, but not his willingness to listen.

Especially not if you’re standing at a Spokane Valley intersection with a “homeless and hungry” sign that causes some motorists to stop when others want to go.

People have been complaining to the City Council, and at least some council members would like to give street corner panhandlers the boot. And not the one firefighters ask motorists to fill for charity.

Focusing on traffic hazards, council members considered a variety of actions but settled on forming a committee that includes members of the city’s “faith community.” In addition to finding out what other cities have done to curb panhandling, the committee is to address problems that drive people to beg.

Any measures to address traffic hazards would have to be applied equally to all solicitors, Deputy City Attorney Cary Driskell warned. That includes firefighters’ “Fill the Boot” fundraisers for the Muscular Dystrophy Association.

Councilman Steve Taylor said he sees both kinds of solicitation as “exactly the same activity, and creating the same problem,” and Mayor Richard Munson said he thought no one on the council would disagree.

Munson suggested requiring panhandlers to get a license, but Councilman Bill Gothman was wary.

“I don’t think it’s the council’s business to try to get around that protected speech,” Gothman said.

Driskell warned that a costly license fee could get the city into First Amendment trouble. However, Munson said he saw value in a licensing program, even if there were no charge, because it would allow the city to monitor solicitors and check their criminal backgrounds.

Still, Driskell said he would be “very apprehensive” about implementing a licensing program or other strong measures without first trying “less intrusive” approaches.

He suggested a public information campaign, perhaps including signs at major intersections favored by panhandlers, to tell people who want to help the homeless that a handout may not be the best way.

“Very few” panhandlers really are homeless, Driskell said. Rather, most are supporting a drug habit.

Councilman Dick Denenny agreed: “To me, it’s not so much a panhandling problem as it is a giving problem.”

Taylor said he’s concerned about safety, and thinks police should give tickets to panhandlers and donors alike if they create a traffic hazard.

Driskell called for collecting evidence of a problem before drafting any new laws, but Police Chief Rick Van Leuven said his officers already are instructed to take action against aggressive panhandlers, but officers would have to witness a traffic hazard to issue a citation.

He said other measures that have been taken include getting the state Department of Transportation to post “no trespassing” signs on state right of way where indigents had camped at the Sullivan Road interchange on Interstate 90.

Van Leuven said the campers had created problems by urinating and defecating around stores on Sullivan Road, panhandling so aggressively that a robbery charge was considered in one case, and throwing objects at motorists who hurled insults.

“It is a subject of intense public concern,” Munson said. “We’re going to continue to look at it and try to do something about it.”