Panhandlers. They're occasionally intimidating. They're often a nuisance. They're almost always an eyesore. And the problem only seems to be getting worse.
Is it time to just ban them already?
Don't look so shocked. Tacoma has done just that. The City of Destiny has decided it doesn't want to be the City of Destitute. Tacoma's message to panhandlers: Quit using our sidewalks for your soliciting.
"It was growing by leaps and bounds," says Tacoma City Council member Connie Ladenburg. In response, she sponsored a begging ban last June as chair of the Public Safety Committee. Panhandlers "were on every single corner" of major intersections, she says.
To be technical, Tacoma's law isn't an absolute ban – that wouldn't be constitutional. But it's pretty darn close.
Consider the elements. Panhandling is not allowed within 15 feet of the following places citywide: building entrances, ATMs, bus stops, parked cars, pay phones, gas stations, car washes, and outdoor cafes. It's not allowed at any time on buses. And you can't panhandle at intersections, freeway ramps, or in any way directed toward traffic. Finally, just to show that begging really isn't welcome in Tacoma, it's prohibited everywhere from dusk to dawn. Period.
It's a heavy set of restrictions that, while still allowing panhandling in very limited circumstances, has put an enormous damper on street solicitation in just the past few months.
"It's extremely dramatic," Landenburg says with some surprise at her law's rapid success. "One day we'd see a lot of people on the street corners, and then next day they were gone. It appears that it was almost overnight."
That was the same reaction I heard from more than a dozen people I talked to recently and randomly in front of the University of Washington Tacoma campus along Pacific Avenue.
Indeed, I didn't see any panhandlers during a full day spent walking and driving around the city. Not one.
So where had they all gone? Jail?
Nope. The city attorney who drafted the ban notes, somewhat proudly, that there has been only one arrest since the law went into effect in June. Presumably, the police have simply warned those who have been found soliciting to pack it up, "or else." The penalty is up to 90 days in jail and up to $1,000 in fines. That's a lot of nickels and dimes.
There are reports that at least some of the activity has moved, not muted. Landenburg notes an anecdotal increase in panhandling on freeway ramps outside the city.
Pushing something this sweeping would seem controversial. One would expect lots of acrimonious City Council debates and attempts to stall the effort. But apparently none of that drama unfolded in Tacoma. Lawmakers passed the restrictions unanimously.
Of course, not everyone is happy about it.
"Tacoma has what I think is the most stringent anti-panhandling ordinance that's been passed in the country," says Tim Harris, executive director of Real Change, the homeless publishing and advocacy organization based in Seattle. "The main thing that it does is give police a tool to harass people who are poor," he says.
Asked if it would make sense in Seattle, Harris gets quite passionate. "Really, nothing about panhandling has changed," he insists, trying to counter the impression that street-begging is burgeoning. "What has changed is the city. We have a downtown condo boom." Those moving into these expensive places, Harris believes, bring their "suburban comforts" and attitudes with them. That's happened in Tacoma, as well, he argues.
Similar panhandling restrictions have been enacted in recent years in a handful of other U.S. cities, including Dallas, Philadelphia, and even San Francisco. None, though, has all the elements of Tacoma's ban. It seems we might be in the midst of a new round of "clean-up" as major cities across the country push downtown living to revitalize urban cores, reverse sprawl, and encourage walk-to-work lifestyles.
As of yet, no other city in Washington has jumped into bed with Tacoma on this one. But there have been a handful of voyeurs. Spokane seems tempted. Bellevue and Issaquah, too. And, yes, even Seattle.
"I think we should have a dialogue about what we can do here," says City Attorney Tom Carr. "I hear from businesses that they are having trouble because of people sleeping in front of their businesses and panhandling in front of their businesses."
Carr isn't ready to accept the full menu of Tacoma's restrictions, but he would make at least one a la carte selection right now: a nighttime ban. "I think it's a reasonable extension of our aggressive begging statute," he says.
The "aggressive begging" statute, in case you don't remember, is a legacy of Mark Sidran, Carr's predecessor during the 1990s. He successfully pushed that, as well as a no-sitting rule on downtown sidewalks during business hours. Is Tom Carr ready to make another run at civility?
"The last city attorney had a very different City Council," says Carr, acknowledging that he doesn't have the votes even for the dusk-to-dawn ban. "The current council doesn't seem to be that interested in public-safety issues." He offered up as evidence the fact they weren't willing to adopt a license requirement for nightclubs.
The Downtown Seattle Association, which has been pushing safe and civil streets for some time, says that a panhandling ban is "not a priority" right now.
Tacoma's approach does seem like a hard sell in bleeding-heart Seattle. Does the city have the jail space, the mental-health resources, and the addiction services that would be needed if panhandling was criminalized? Surely those questions would be asked.
And what about the unintended consequences? Just the other day I asked a homeless man waving a sign near an Interstate 5 on-ramp what he thought of Tacoma's law, which bans his behavior there. "People will be doing other things, I guarantee you that. Breaking into cars and garages and whatever they can do," he warned. "This gives people an option."
And going at it from another angle, he said, "if they outlaw it, it's not only encroaching on our right to panhandle, it's encroaching on the public's right to give who they choose to, instead of ... non-profits."
It's worth some spare change just to see how this issue unfolds, don't you think?