New panhandling laws aren't needed in Seattle

Councilmember Tim Burgess has put together a good public-safety package. But the one idea attracting the most attention won't help.
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Tim Burgess.

Councilmember Tim Burgess has put together a good public-safety package. But the one idea attracting the most attention won't help.

Seattle City Councilmember Tim Burgess has a plan to reduce crime and disorder on city streets. There is a lot to like in the plan, including a return to basics for neighborhood policing, increased police staffing and outreach to people who need help.

The panhandling restrictions, however, have created controversy and have the potential to overshadow these other good ideas. This is a common problem and one that I experienced firsthand when I worked on these issues for a former mayor.

First, some history: in 1997, King County Executive Ron Sims convened the Chronic Public Inebriate Systems Solutions Committee. The committee was made up of social service providers, non-profit housing providers, law enforcement, government officials, and advocates. Their charge was to integrate existing services and recommend changes to the system.

Seattle legend Dutch Shisler was also on the committee. Dutch was a former street alcoholic. He sobered up and started helping others by picking them up in his van and getting them help. The Emergency Service Patrol van operated by the county was created because of his work. Dutch died about 10 years ago and the sobering center opened under his leadership bears his name.

Sims' committee came up with a comprehensive strategy to reduce the public health and safety problems created by chronic drug and alcohol use on the streets. A lot was accomplished including the following:

  • A joint city/county housing plan for special populations;
  • The 60-bed Dutch Shisler Sobering Center;
  • The Crisis Triage Unit at Harborview;
  • Integration of mental health and chemical dependency services;
  • Downtown Emergency Service Center pre-recovery housing at 1811 Eastlake;
  • Support for the creation of the Mental Health Crisis Intervention Team in the Seattle Police Department;
  • ESP patroling and sobering services;
  • Creation of the Alcohol Impact Area.

The last item, the creation of the Alcohol Impact Area (AIA), certainly got the most media attention early on. The AIA was a strategy to reduce the supply of cheap, high octane alcohol in areas that were inundated with chronic street alcoholics. Some thought it ironic that, while we were attempting to restrict these products, we also supported the DESC pre-recovery housing where late stage street alcoholics were allowed to drink in their apartments. In fact, the strategy was complementary and part of what is known as "harm reduction."

Harm reduction is the idea that you while you can't ever fully eliminate core societal problems like drug and alcohol abuse, you can develop strategies to reduce the damage to individuals and society as a whole. The 1811 Eastlake housing does not require late stage street alcoholics to be sober to get housing, but by providing a stable, safe environment with supportive services, the operators have found many have reduced their alcohol intake. But the other benefit is that these individuals are off the street and not creating problems for residents, business owners, and visitors to a neighborhood. And, importantly, they are not the victims of crime.

There was controversy associated with the DESC housing, with some people who believed it was wrong to let individuals getting public housing to continue drinking, and others who believed it would attract more crime and disorder. In contrast, the alcohol impact area was criticized by those who believed it was an attack on the poor and an effort to gentrify.

But here is my warning for Burgess: The AIA process came to be known as the only thing the city was doing to address the problem. They said it was just pushing the problem around, and not solving the root causes of homelessness and substance abuse. And it was portrayed as a downtown business community effort with elitist roots.

Sound familiar?

In the same way Burgess's panhandling provision overshadows politically the other good pieces of his strategy, so too did the alcohol impact area overshadow the other strategies and programs to deal with this very real and destructive problem on our streets.

My own concern with the panhandling provision is that it will be difficult to enforce and police officers will feel that they are put in a political no-win situation. (The AIA provisions, in contrast, were something enforced by the Washington State Liquor Control Board.) Advocates for the homeless will demand to know why police are issuing tickets to homeless people and not applying the law to Greenpeace activists or Save the Children canvassers. As a side note, I feel much worse telling the Save the Children canvassers that I don't have five-minutes to save the life of a child than I do dealing with someone who is panhandling.

I'm reminded of another situation where the police were put in a political no-win situation. The organization Food Not Bombs was handing out food in Pioneer Square'ꀙs Occidental Park and residents demanded that we tell the group to stop. It was creating litter, health, and a host of other problems in the park.

I convened a group of service providers and people who wanted to provide meals to homeless people. The service providers explained that the outdoor meals programs were doing more harm than good and that there were numerous places in downtown and Pioneer Square where people could sit down and get at least three meals a day.

Church groups from Kitsap County and other places did not want to hear this — nor did Food Not Bombs. In fact, Food Not Bombs refused to get permits because they wanted SPD to make arrests. SPD did not want to be on the front page arresting people for providing meals.

So SPD was left telling neighborhood people that yes, what the groups are doing is technically illegal, but no, we'ꀙre not going to do anything about it. The panhandling provision has the potential to put SPD in a similarly difficult position.

There is another issue here that needs to be discussed. Over time we have created so many new laws and provisions that some homeless people get caught up in the law without even knowing what they did wrong. Ask Elaine Simons, executive director for Peace for the Streets by Kids from the Streets on Capitol Hill. I worked with Simons some years ago in the Schell Administration when there were growing problems and antagonism among homeless youth, neighbors, and the business community.

We found that many of these kids — the vast majority of whom were aging out of foster care, kicked out of their homes by abusive parents because of their sexual orientation, or had mental health and substance abuse issues — were getting in trouble because they didn't understand the so called 'ꀜsit/lie'ꀝ ordinance or the parks exclusion ordinance, or any number of other laws and regulations. Elaine and SPD Officer Kim Bogucki teamed up to create 'ꀜthe Donut Dialogues'ꀝ with goals of educating these kids about the law and creating a dialogue between kids and cops. It helped both sides understand each other and helped the kids stay out of trouble.

Burgess has shown that he is willing to talk about his ideas and alter the package to achieve what we all want: safe and welcoming streets for everyone. We have an aggressive panhandling ordinance already on the books along with many other laws — some enforced, some not.

We don't need new laws. We need to allow our officers and service provider community to do their jobs and not be politicized. Burgess is taking on a hugely important issue in a pragmatic way and deserves support for focusing on what is the core responsibility of local government: public safety. Our ability to deal with these problems stems largely from our political will.

Our political leadership needs to give our police officers a clear understanding of our expectations. Too often, officers are caught between their sworn mandate to enforce the law and political leadership that criticizes them for doing so.

Creating new laws that don't have clear guidance and support from our leaders will further confuse and undermine an officer's effectiveness. It is much easier to stay in your car and answer 911 calls than it is to engage the streets and do the kind of proactive policing that really has an impact on community safety. Proactive officers are much more likely to receive complaints and put themselves in danger. But we need them more than we need a new law.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Jordan Royer

Jordan Royer

Jordan Royer is the vice president for external affairs in the Seattle office of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association.