EVERETT — The City Council passed a controversial ordinance against panhandling Wednesday that has drawn the attention of activists on behalf of neighborhoods and the homeless.
The vote was 4-2, and came before a packed crowd that included vociferous testimony from the public.
The ordinance amends current city code to classify “aggressive panhandling” as a misdemeanor punishable by jail or a fine. That’s the clause that’s drawn the most criticism from residents and activists.
Other sections of the ordinance will instruct the police to work with property owners so they can know their rights as far as prohibiting begging on their property, and put into place a public outreach campaign to discourage people from giving money to panhandlers and instead encourage donations to specified agencies that provide social services for the homeless.
Jason Mohn, pastor at First Covenant Church of Everett, commented that by focusing on enforcement, the council wasn’t looking “upstream” to find and address the root of the problem of homelessness.
“Where are all these people with needs coming from?” Mohn said.
Melissa Springer, an Everett resident, countered that the city should pass the ordinance, because the city was already taking other steps.
“I believe we can do two things at once. We are looking upstream,” she said.
The ordinance has drawn the attention of outside groups as well as local activists.
Late Tuesday, the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington and Seattle University’s Homeless Rights Advocacy Project sent Mayor Ray Stephanson and the council letters urging the council to reject the ordinance, stating that it is “unconstitutional, ineffective, and unnecessarily costly and punitive,” according to the ACLU.
Instead, the city should invest its resources into providing more services for those who are homeless or otherwise affected by poverty.
Deputy city prosecutor David Hall told the council that the ordinance should be considered in the context of other initiatives the city is undertaking to combat homelessness and associated issues such as mental health, addiction and street-level crime.
“Everett is in fact doing many of the things the authors of those letters emphasize,” Hall said.
“The legitimate desire to protect our citizens is not, I would propose, the same thing as criminalizing homelessness,” he added.
Councilwoman Judy Tuohy sponsored two amendments to the measure, one of which inserted a clause that emphasized that deferring panhandlers into social service programs was preferable to arresting and booking them. The other removed language that would have had the city set up and maintain a fund to collect donations, instead of directing would-be donors to a list of agencies.
Tuohy, as well as councilmen Scott Murphy, Jeff Moore and Scott Bader voted in favor of the revised ordinance. Councilmembers Brenda Stonecipher and Ron Gipson voted against it. Councilman Paul Roberts was absent.
“I don’t like it. It appears we have an aggressive begging ordinance on the books already,” Gipson said. “I don’t support this, changing the rules to target certain people.”
Scott Murphy reiterated the point that the city was undertaking a number of initiatives, and that law enforcement had to be part of the solution.
“I strongly believe that this ordinance as amended is a vote for public safety,” Murphy said.
The ordinance will take effect 15 days after Stephanson signs it, after the amendments are added.
The city’s ordinance took a circuitous route to Wednesday’s passage.
An earlier version of the ordinance, which also drew the attention of the ACLU, was rejected by the council in April. That version emphasized safety, outlawing panhandling in median strips near intersections, for example.
The current version originally included clauses that would have banned begging near ATMs and banks or lines for entertainment events.
Those sections were removed after a federal judge struck down a similar measure in the city of Grand Junction, Colorado, this month.
The city’s attempts to strengthen its codes have come after it adopted the findings of its Streets Initiative Task Force last year, which include 63 recommendations for dealing with Everett’s chronic problems with homelessness, and mental illness, addiction and petty street crime.
Most of those recommendations focused on social services provisions, but they also included law enforcement recommendations.
One of those was an earlier version of an anti-panhandling ordinance, which didn’t have unanimous support of the task force but was nonetheless included in the final report.
Stephanson’s budget proposal for 2016, which was also presented at Wednesday’s council meeting, includes setting aside $1 million for a variety of initiatives surrounding street-level problems.
Those include hiring five more police officers, two full-time social workers to ride along with the cops, and a new prosecutor.
Stephanson also intends to build 20 new permanent supportive housing units over the next two years for frequent users of city and emergency services.