Sacramento County plans crackdown on panhandling

Characterizing pandhandlers as relentless nuisances who cause traffic accidents and use kids and dogs to engender sympathy, Sacramento County leaders on Tuesday pushed forward an ordinance designed to eradicate their presence in the unincorporated county.

The ordinance—due for final approval on May 13—aims to chase panhandlers from their chosen spots at freeway ramps, on traffic medians, at transit locations, and near ATMS, grocery stores and other businesses.

If you’re wondering, “Where else can someone ask for money?” good question.

“If you look at commonality between these areas, these are all areas where people become stuck,” explained Sacramento County sheriff’s Capt. Matt Morgan, who introduced the measure.

The city of Citrus Heights realized an estimated 85-percent reduction in panhandling in the four years since it leveled a similar ordinance, a county staff report states.

Officials say they’re merely trying to rid the county of aggressive solicitors—not eliminate them—but aggressive solicitation is already illegal under public nuisance laws, noted Bob Erlenbusch, executive director of the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness.

Morgan, who commands the sheriff’s department’s north area division, acknowledged the policy’s intent was to curtail panhandling “even if it is not aggressive.”

The ordinance does so, he added, by relieving law enforcement of the need of getting a credible victim or witness statement before citing and, eventually, locking up a solicitor. Based on the deputies’ own observations, he told supervisors, “Our officers would have the ability to book that person into custody.”

The first two violations under the proposed policy would be treated as infractions, requiring an appearance in traffic court, Morgan said. A third infraction within six months of the last one would be treated as a misdemeanor, potentially subjecting someone to under a year in jail if prosecuted.

Prosecution would be at the discretion of the Sacramento County district attorney’s office, Morgan said.

If enacted, sheriff’s officers would spend the first 60 days informing both solicitors and the public of the new law. Deputies would hand out fliers similar to ones used in the city of Auburn, which claim that most panhandlers have homes and use the money for drugs and alcohol.

Not everyone shares that cynical take.

“Homeless or not, people panhandle because they are impoverished and have no other alternatives, a right protected under the first amendment,” said Shahera Hyatt, director of the California Homeless Youth Project.

Hyatt cited a recent survey by the Business Improvement District in San Francisco, which determined that more than 80 percent of that city’s panhandlers were, indeed, homeless. “Honestly, I give to homeless people on the street because it’s the only time I can be sure that a dollar I spend will go directly to the person in need,” she added.

Hyatt and other homeless advocates plan to oppose the policy’s adoption on May 13, and press for alternative solutions that would stop short of further criminalizing the poor, like employing a social worker to assess the needs of panhandlers and direct them to services.

Morgan said deputies would give solicitors pocket guides listing nearby charities where they could seek aid.

The ordinance was developed by a “multidisciplinary team” comprised of staff from the county’s economic development division, sheriff’s department, DA’s office, human assistance department and county counsel’s office. The team based its plan on discussions with business associations, as well as local property and business owners.

Homeless advocates were not consulted, nor were they present at Tuesday’s hearing. Both Erlenbusch and Hyatt were contacted after the hearing began.

Morgan said aggressive panhandling typically fell into the top three concerns he hears from residents at community meetings. That message was reiterated Tuesday by representatives of three business associations.

Fulton Avenue Association executive director Melinda M. Eppler said her area’s “fairly high-end customer base,” especially those patronizing local auto dealers, didn’t want to deal with the nuisance of people hitting them up for money. She also asked supervisors to term the offenders “panhandlers,” rather than “solicitors,” lest those gathering signatures in front of Trader Joe’s be targeted.

“So we don’t arrest Girl Scouts selling cookies,” quipped Supervisor Susan Peters.

Watt Avenue Merchants Association executive director David Kuhnen asked whether prostitution would be considered a form of aggressive solicitation, while Florin Road Partnership executive director Larry Clark wanted the sheriff’s office to work more closely with private security firms already patrolling the area.

Panhandling is a protected form of free speech, and laws to curtail it have been knocked down by the U.S. Supreme Court, Erlenbusch and Hyatt said.

Capt. Morgan believed the county had crafted an ordinance that complied with the First Amendment.

Sacramento County cities that have successfully limited panhandling with similar ordinances include Sacramento, Citrus Heights, Elk Grove, Rancho Cordova and Galt.

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