Recently the City of Monroe reviewed its city ordinances with respect to complaints about panhandlers. Panhandlers are generally homeless and homelessness cannot be eliminated by an ordinance.
Every citizen wants to feel safe in their community. The majority of communities in Snohomish County have some homeless neighbors. In Monroe, we have few resources to help the homeless become housed. To eliminate panhandling requires much more than an ordinance and police intervention.
Thankfully, safety is a primary value in Monroe. We are grateful for the work of the city council and the police department to ensure we live in a safe community. As humans, we feel fearful when we find ourselves in unfamiliar circumstances. An aggressive panhandler will evoke a fear response in most anyone, and we are grateful for the police department’s suggestion to call 911 for any of us found in that situation.
Homelessness is a tiny step away for our neighbors living in poverty. No one wants to be homeless or live in poverty. However, life does not deal the same hand to all of our neighbors. A single mom with two kids working full time at minimum wage makes far below the poverty line. A vehicle breakdown or an illness can catapult a low-wage-earning individual or family into homelessness. Abused youth find it safer to live on the streets or in the woods than to live with their family. Disability checks provide a fraction of rent amounts, and the mentally ill find it difficult to find and keep housing. In each example, resources and mentoring are needed to help neighbors become housed.
Behind every panhandler is a complicated life that may include trauma, abuse, addiction, mental health issues, or lost low wages. The keys to eliminate panhandling are to bring additional low-income housing to east Snohomish County, as well as to add accessible drug, alcohol and mental health assessments in our area. When a person suffering from an addiction or mental health issue has a moment of hopeful clarity and seeks help, often the moment is snuffed out by a complicated life that takes over if they have to wait many weeks for an appointment to begin to explore the process for help. Even getting into Everett for assessments can be a tremendous hurdle for our homeless neighbors.
Being accosted by an aggressive panhandler is a stressful experience we all want to avoid. Moving that panhandler to another community isn’t a good solution for anyone. We want to live in safe communities. Ending homelessness will also stop panhandling. Most panhandlers would rather work than ask for money. But there can be hundreds of little steps of transition needed for a homeless panhandler to become a productive employed worker. Homelessness can be addressed by bringing additional resources, which will help with that transition, to east Snohomish County. We all want to live in communities where no one is homeless and there are no panhandlers.
Donna L. Olson is executive director of Take the Next Step, a Monroe-based nonprofit organization serving homeless and low-income people.