Thursday’s Seattle Times headline said, "Panhandling crackdown urged by Seattle council member". Seattlepi.com liked the “crackdown” term, too: “Burgess: Put more cops on street, crack down on panhandlers.” The Conversation program on KUOW solicited call-ins by repeating, “Seattle city council member Tim Burgess wants to crack down on aggressive panhandling! Some say he’s really cracking down on the homeless.” The kind of truculent talk that wakes up audiences seems cartoonish in this case.
The proposed ordinance is number three of Burgess’s five-part Safer Streets Initiative. The ordinance included in the initiative would prohibit aggressive solicitation from paid street solicitors as well as from panhandlers. It is expressly designed to preserve freedom of speech as well as the economic vitality of the city. The goal is to improve the quality of public life so that businesses are not adversely affected by street disorder and jobs are safeguarded. It is also aimed at steering people who offend because of mental illness or addiction toward social services.
There is also a broader context. Recommendation 1 in the initiative is to return foot patrols to streets in the downtown core. Recommendation 2 is to go forward with the Neighborhood Policing Plan, and hire more police officers. Recommendations 4 and 5 urge, respectively, coordinating street outreach so that more people who need support services will receive them, and increasing the availability of housing with support services for individuals with mental health and addiction problems.
Some will ask why a new ordinance is needed when “aggressive begging” is already listed in the criminal code as illegal (12A.12.015). Burgess’s office replies that “aggressive solicitation” in the proposed ordinance defines disorderly behaviors more precisely than does the earlier law, whose generality makes it harder to enforce. Under the new legislation, for example, solicitors may not follow people down the street, approach them when they are using an ATM (for obvious reasons), or when they are using a parking pay station (a payer can feel vulnerable during the wait required for securing validation, or feel cornered in a parking lot).
Also, offenses against the new ordinance are classified as civil instead of criminal infractions, to permit swifter on-the-spot police responses. Persons who could not afford to pay the $50 fine would be asked to perform community service.
I share the normal liberal tendency to oppose forces that might further impoverish the poor or disempower the weak. But this comes up against the reality that homeless and mentally ill people are among the most vulnerable to street aggression. I meet weekly for coffee with a man who has paranoid schizophrenia (I’ve called him "Gerald" in these pages). Though his emotional balance is not strong, he has for many years managed his illness with the medications he hates to take. Earlier this week he phoned me to say that he wouldn’t be able to join me as usual because, he said, “The bus stop is so scary. There are so many people dealing drugs, and people come up and ask me for money, and I look like an easy touch. They won’t leave me alone.”
What my homeless alcoholic friend "Benjamin" most fears is being overpowered by street thugs. Young and skinny, he's been robbed more than once of the spare change he manages to collect by standing quietly against a building and (in a free-speech gesture preserved by Burgess’s ordinance) holding out a cup. Seattle’s streets belong to us all.
Support service agencies downtown (Compass Center, YWCA, Plymouth Housing Group, Downtown Emergency Services Center, and others) know that the population they serve is vulnerable to street violence. They support the proposed legislation.