Use panhandling law to help

Many of us struggle with the correct response when approached by someone begging for money. Our desire to help a fellow human being often conflicts with our doubts about the person’s true need or how they will use what we provide.

That conflict also comes into play in how we write laws to address the issue of panhandling. The Everett City Council’s 4-2 vote on Wednesday to amend its aggressive panhandling ordinance shows the uncertainty of how best to help those who are struggling in poverty, are homeless or suffer from addictions, and at the same time how to protect the rights of passers-by to their safety and ability to go about their day free of harassment.

The ordinance amends the definition of aggressive begging and makes it a misdemeanor, punishable by a fine up to $1,000. The ordinance makes it illegal, by words or actions, to beg with the intent to intimidate another person into giving money or goods. Previously, the definition required someone to reasonably fear harm or a criminal act.

Lowering the bar for what is considered aggressive begging is cause for concern by some on the council, by residents who spoke at yesterday’s meeting and by the American Civil Liberties Union and Seattle University’s Homeless Rights Advocacy Project. In letters from the two groups, the council was warned that the new language is overly vague and is a violation of First Amendment rights. “How are homeless persons supposed to know when their peaceable request for money make people feel compelled, intimidated or anxious?” asked the letter from the Seattle University program and also signed by the Snohomish County Homeless Policy Task Force.

Critics, including Jason Mohn, pastor at First Covenant Church of Everett, said that the focus on enforcement was ignoring the root causes behind the problem, as reported in Thursday’s Herald.

Except that Everett — noting the ongoing Streets Initiative that has identified more than 60 potential programs and efforts to address homelessness, addiction and other street issues — hasn’t put the focus exclusively on enforcement. The ordinance itself includes language that calls for a dedicated fund where donations can be directed for services to aid those struggling with poverty.

And the city recently committed $1 million to street issues, including the hiring of two more social workers to go out with police and, rather than make arrests, connect people with needed social services.

The ordinance lowers the bar in defining aggressive panhandling, but the end result won’t necessarily be an arrest and a $1,000 fine. It can be about getting help for people who need it.

Begging for a living isn’t a living. A commentary in The Atlantic Monthly in 2011, found that studies showed the typical “career panhandler,” who devoted his or her time overwhelmingly to begging, could make between $600 and $1,500 a month. But without a way to save money, most spend it quickly on basic necessities and often are only able to feed their addictions. The same commentary noted a report from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development that said 6 in 10 homeless respondents reported problems with alcohol or drugs, a ratio that, in truth, is likely higher.

Giving to those who beg, then, often only perpetuates their poverty.

Everett’s police and municipal court have been given a tool that can help steer people way from a tough way of life and toward programs that can help.

Our responsibility, as we are approached less often by those seeking money, is to not pretend that the problem has been solved but to financially support the programs that provide assistance.

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