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City zeroes in on begging

SATURDAY, NOV. 22, 2008

Rules would ban practice in some spots, require licenses in others

“Need money for license to beg.”

That could be the new sign motorists see if the Spokane City Council approves rules requiring beggars to buy special-events licenses before collecting money at major intersections.

The proposal is part of a series of ordinances under consideration in Spokane that would restrict panhandling.

One rule would outlaw all begging within 15 feet of building entrances, ATMs, fuel pumps, bus stops, pay phones and from anyone getting into or out of a parked car.

Another would prohibit folks from sitting or lying on sidewalks between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m. throughout most of downtown. Exceptions include people waiting for buses or during special events, such as parades. A person sitting or lying on the sidewalk would be warned and given a chance to move.

Breaking the rules would lead to misdemeanor charges punishable by jail time and fines.

Spokane leaders have heard from many business leaders on the matter, including Marty Dickinson, who leads the Downtown Spokane Partnership, and Spokesman-Review Publisher Stacey Cowles, who sent a letter to the city in support of the proposals.

“There are many, many countless individuals who are sitting on our sidewalks that are not in need of services,” Dickinson told City Council members Monday. “They’re getting out of high school. They’re coming and sitting down, and they are intentionally sitting themselves to disrupt business, to threaten people, to be engaged in negative behavior and activity.”

Others say the rules are unnecessary and that a better solution is to provide improved treatment for mental illness and addictions.

Christine Carlile, a county public defender, questioned the creation of such laws that would put more people into an already overcrowded jail.

“You cannot address social problems by passing a punitive ordinance that puts people in jail,” said Carlile, who said she was testifying as a Spokane resident. “The reality is that all major cities in the world have panhandlers. It does not keep people from visiting your city.”

But some argue that ending panhandling will benefit panhandlers as much as businesses.

Joe Terhaar, who works with families affected by drug and alcohol abuse, said people shouldn’t give to panhandlers because most of the money goes to buy drugs or alcohol.

“Drug users will not go for help when well-intentioned but naive people continue to give money,” Terhaar said.

Some argue the rules appear to be picking on the unfortunate. They note that it already is illegal to aggressively panhandle.

“The people who complain about that are rich, snobby people who don’t know what it’s like,” said Kenny McLachlan, a Spokane resident who works downtown and was traveling on his skateboard through downtown Friday morning.

He added that folks bothered by panhandlers have an easy solution.

“You always have the option to say no,” McLachlan said. “It’s a freedom of speech kind of thing.”

City leaders say they have crafted the ordinances carefully based on laws in other cities and discussions with legal experts and business leaders.

“My desire was to find a balance with constitutional behavior – behavior that is an expression of free speech – but also to get control of behavior that is really getting out of control,” Spokane Mayor Mary Verner said in a recent interview.

Some attorneys who examined the law for the city, however, have expressed concern that the rules discriminate based on message. For instance, a person could hold a sign at Division Street and Third Avenue urging social or political change, but not one that seeks change that’s metal.

“I’m not sure that would pass constitutional muster,” said Bonne Beavers, a staff attorney for the Center for Justice.

She said rules prohibiting sitting or lying on the sidewalk have been found to be constitutional, but she is concerned about the proposed ban on panhandling within 15 feet of business entrances.

“The effect is going to be prohibiting panhandling within the downtown core,” she said, noting that courts have found that asking for money is protected free speech.

Business leaders from banks, hotels and retail establishments told the City Council their customers’ rights often are infringed on by beggars.

Stephen Pohl, general manager of River Park Square, said unimpeded sidewalk access is important for business.

“The behavior of aggressive panhandling has undermined the shopping experience in the downtown area for our guests and have brought more than a few comments to our staff,” he told the council this week.

River Park Square is an affiliate of the Cowles Co., which also owns The Spokesman-Review.

Spokane leaders aren’t alone in their concerns about panhandling.

In Spokane Valley, City Councilman Bill Gothmann recently led a committee to examine the problem.

He said Spokane Valley is plagued with places where panhandlers defecate and pollute. But he said he’s more concerned about how the money is spent.

“Good people with great hearts are giving their charity dollar to a charity where they can be sure that 80 percent of that will go to drugs and alcohol.”

In Spokane, one group that may end up with fewer restrictions if all the ordinances are approved is street musicians. The city currently requires them to purchase peddler’s licenses. On Monday, the council likely will consider a law that would allow folks to perform on sidewalks without a license, said assistant city attorney Mike Piccolo.

The same rule was considered earlier this week, but it was delayed, in part, because of concerns that it would have required musicians to get a license if they set up a hat or open guitar case for donations. Piccolo said Friday a new version that strikes the license requirement for people with an open container likely will be considered on Monday.

Jonathan Brunt can be reached at jonathanb@spokesman.com or (509) 459-5442.

 

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