Cities adopt rules on aggressive panhandling, camping

GRANITE FALLS — Aggressive panhandling and unauthorized camping now are illegal here.

The City Council unanimously passed two ordinances Wednesday. One bans camping in public parks, streets, sidewalks, alleys or bridges. The other makes it illegal to intentionally block people or cars. It outlaws aggressive panhandling, defined as begging with the intent to intimidate or compel someone into giving money or goods. Officials say the problems are tied to homelessness and drug use.

Three other Snohomish County cities have passed similar rules in the past 11 months.

Snohomish in June banned aggressive panhandling.

Arlington in July updated city code to prohibit panhandling and illegal camping.

Marysville in October approved rules that crack down on panhandling and nuisance properties.

People who violate the new regulations in Granite Falls can get up to a $1,000 fine or 90 days in jail.

Recently, there have been problems with people tearing apart park benches for firewood and sleeping in a replica train on display in town, said Sgt. Scott Robertson, who took over as the Granite Falls police chief in March. Families complain about finding drug paraphernalia in the train and at parks, he said.

“This isn’t going to be … used as a hammer,” Robertson said. “We’re going to offer resources. We want to work with people who are really down on their luck and homeless, but on the other hand, when you’ve told the same people a number of times and the same problems persist, we need to have a way to deal with this.”

Though there have been problems with illegal camping, aggressive panhandling is rare in Granite Falls, Robertson said. He hopes it stays that way but wanted regulations in place in case anti-panhandling rules in other local cities cause homeless people to migrate to the next town.

Instead of banning panhandling entirely, the rule is focused on actions that make pedestrians or drivers fearful, such as blocking traffic or refusing to back off when someone doesn’t give money.

“It’s not against your right to ask for something, and make no mistake, some people need to ask for help,” Robertson said. “You have to have some sort of action by the person for this ordinance to apply. Just standing there holding a sign isn’t enough.”

The Everett City Council last month rejected a proposal to ban panhandling on street corners. The 4-2 vote came after hours of public testimony.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington called the Everett proposal unconstitutional, saying begging is free speech. Everett already has rules in place prohibiting “aggressive begging.” The city also prohibits illegal camping in public areas.

The community heroin epidemic and drug-related crimes have brought panhandling and illegal camping into the spotlight. However, these regulations are nothing new; some cities have had laws on the books for decades.

At least half of the cities in the county have rules about panhandling or aggressive begging, and three more have regulations specific to that activity in public parks. Seventeen of the 20 communities have camping restrictions, some regarding homeless camps and others regarding use of parks or beaches.

Three towns — Woodway, Darrington and Brier — don’t have rules for begging or camping, and it hasn’t been a problem so far, officials said.

“Brier is the epitome of a bedroom community,” City Clerk Paula Swisher said. “We don’t have any panhandling or camping in public spaces. We don’t have any laws on our books about that nor are we considering adopting anything like that.”

Staff in Stanwood have talked about bringing the issue to the City Council. The community is not far from Arlington and Marysville, where new restrictions on panhandling could push transients out of town and on to the next stop.

With all the talk in neighboring cities, “we want to bring that to the council and see if they’re interested,” City Administrator Deborah Knight said.

Officials in most cities agree panhandling tends to be most common the closer you get to I-5. Smokey Point, which straddles Arlington and Marysville, has been a hot spot. Arlington police said they respond to hundreds of shoplifting calls there a year and have found camps littered with trash and used needles.

Problems in Granite Falls haven’t been as bad as the cities along the I-5 corridor, Robertson said. The new ordinances are “tools we have when other resources fail” to help get people off the streets.

Ideally, conversations and referrals for social services could help people avoid fines or arrests under the new rules, Robertson said.

“I hope it doesn’t become an issue,” he said. “I hope that we never have to use these ordinances.”

Kari Bray: 425-339-3439; kbray@heraldnet.com.

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