Panhandlers have been a familiar sight at busy intersections in Spokane Valley for years. Now, however, tough new rules against panhandling seem to have encouraged them to move down the road or hang up their cardboard signs.
The City Council unanimously passed an ordinance in August that makes it a misdemeanor for anyone to step onto a busy arterial to accept money because it creates a traffic hazard. Panhandlers are also banned from asking for money verbally or via a sign. A misdemeanor is punishable by a fine of up $1,000 or up to 90 days in jail, but the maximum punishment is rarely given.
“It’s had a great impact,” Spokane Valley police Chief Rick Van Leuven said of the new law. “I think it’s evident that we don’t have the number of panhandlers out there now that we used to.”
Police gave panhandlers a warning period but are now fully enforcing the ordinance. Van Leuven said the warnings have been effective in making the regular panhandlers move on and usually new violators are transients passing through who don’t know about the new law.
“We’ve not had to arrest anybody,” he said. “Typically we try to gain compliance, first and foremost. If somebody refuses to heed our warning and they are in violation of the ordinance, they could be given a ticket or actually booked into jail. That is the officer’s discretion.”
Spokane Valley’s new law is different from the ones in place in Spokane. The city of Spokane bans aggressive panhandling like Spokane Valley does and people are not allowed to obstruct pedestrian or vehicular traffic, but there is no specific ban on stepping into the street at any time. There is also a law that prohibits anyone from sitting or lying down on any sidewalk in the downtown Spokane retail core between the hours of 7 a.m. and 9 p.m.
Spokane police Officer Shaney Redmond said Spokane also prohibits any panhandling within 15 feet of an ATM, fuel pump, bus stop and other locations and some arrests have been made for those violations. Just standing on the sidewalk asking for money is not illegal and few arrests are specifically for panhandling. “There are certain rights they have,” she said. “We do arrest a few here and there for pedestrian inference, but that’s not panhandling.”
Spokane Valley Councilman Bill Gothmann chaired an ad-hoc committee in 2008 that was dedicated to addressing the panhandling problems the city was having. “I think the new ordinance has been very successful as far as reducing the number of panhandlers in the city,” he said. “I’ve seen very few along arterials. Over the weekend I saw one fellow, that was it. I’m very pleased with the way things are going.”
Gothmann hopes the success continues. “The majority of panhandlers, the reason they panhandle is because it’s an easy way to make a buck,” he said. “Their disappearance shows that is indeed the case.”
But there are some indications that the problem has only moved up the road, not gone away. Van Leuven said he’s seen indications that some panhandlers are now setting up shop in Millwood and north Spokane County. “There are noticeably more panhandlers moving north and out of our jurisdiction,” he said. “I’ve noticed more of a presence up there than I have before.”
There does not seem to have been a recent increase in panhandlers in Spokane, said Redmond, who patrols the downtown area on a bicycle. “I’ve seen the same people out here that I’ve seen before,” she said.
Spokane Valley’s new law only applies to specific major arterials such as Argonne and Sprague and the Interstate 90 interchanges, so stepping into the road while panhandling is technically allowed on other streets. But Van Leuven said panhandlers won’t use those streets. “They try to pick the spots that have the most traffic,” he said.
It was precisely the heavy traffic that was the problem, with cars backing up on green lights when a driver stopped to hand money to a panhandler, Van Leuven said. “The whole reason we’re doing this is the public safety aspect of preventing panhandlers from stepping into the street.”
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