Panhandling in Marin

A public beggar on Rowland Boulevard in Novato is surrounded in traffic as he stands on a median asking for cash.

With the possible exception of gun-related violence, perhaps the most embarrassing issue for a country as wealthy as the U.S. is homelessness — and how they make ends meet.

Last year in America, for the first time in seven years, the number of people without a safe, regular place to sleep has grown. On any given night in 2017, about 554,000 people across the country were homeless, just under a 1 percent rise above 2016 levels according to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Fueling last year’s rise in homelessness is California, which had 134,278 homeless people in 2017, more than any other state and 25 percent of the nation’s total. California saw the largest absolute increase in homelessness of any state between 2016 and 2017.

And with homelessness comes panhandling.

The number of cities with outright bans on panhandling increased by 25 percent between 2011 and 2014, while the number of cities with restrictions on begging in specified public places, such as near schools or banks, rose by 20 percent, according to a report by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, an advocacy group.

There is a growing trend among cities nationwide to pass laws that criminalize homelessness, said Jeremy Rosen, director of advocacy at the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty in Washington, D.C.

Such ordinances, typically billed as public-safety measures, wind up punishing homeless people for activities they cannot avoid, he said.

And panhandling bans have faced legal challenges on First Amendment grounds — and a U.S. Supreme Court ruling has provided additional ammunition to opponents who argue such laws trample free speech protections.

Also, banning panhandling is perceived as classist and cruel to some, but a necessary step toward safety for others.

In Marin County, panhandlers are treated differently depending on which municipality is their base of operations.

“There are no discussions in the works about installing … an ordinance for the unincorporated sections of Marin,” said a county spokesperson. That means the roadways in rural areas are not governed. The same proves true for the freeways and highways monitored by the California Highway Patrol. Their unofficial plan is to corral anyone panhandling on those roads simply as a safety measure — and they say freeways and highways are not routinely used by panhandlers to make a buck.

It’s the cities and towns that really have to figure it out.

As 2017 ended, San Rafael officials opted to enforce some rules for about a dozen zones, banning loitering in unsafe areas, notably medians shorter than four feet wide. Citing an increase in citizen complaints, officials assembled a list of streets where loitering rules would be more stringently enforced.

While officials tried to cite loitering as the issue, that’s tantamount to a code word for panhandling. After all, how many people loiter or linger on roadway medians without asking for money?

Political correctness aside, it’s still a safety issue for the panhandlers. Drivers toss money at panhandlers, prompting them into traffic, creating a hazard.

A San Rafael staff report noted the intersections at Third and Union streets (near Whole Foods market) and the Northgate and Freitas areas, both near shopping malls, as being specifically problematic.

The ordinance outlaws loitering and obstructing traffic signs.

For those accusing San Rafael’s rules of cruelty to homelessness, it should be pointed out that the city employed a different strategy in 2016 to thwart panhandling, one that exuded compassion.

The “Put Your Change to Work” campaign, spearheaded by the Downtown Streets Team, asked residents to stop providing handouts to panhandlers and instead make coin donations into specifically designated parking meters.

“When we first set out, we landed on a simple but critical insight — people panhandle because people give money, and people give money because they want to help those in need,” stated the team’s press materials. “Thus was born the ‘Put Your Change to Work’ Campaign. And more so than we ever imagined, this initiative is proving to be a major win-win for the community: People who want to help those in need now have a very visible and easy way to contribute; Panhandling is discouraged, thus helping residents and businesses who have been negatively impacted by it.”

While San Rafael braves the potential litigation involved with banning panhandling and the stigma of being accused — even if unfairly — of mistreating the homeless, the rest of Marin County stands pat.

“We do not currently have a similar ordinance but have been researching this issue and will continue to do so — so that our City Council has options to consider,” responded Novato Police Chief Adam McGill when asked if Novato would act similarly to San Rafael.

Sausalito Chief of Police John Rohrbacher said, “We do not have a panhandling on medians problem in the City of Sausalito. We do not have the size of medians that lends to a panhandling location.”

Dan Schwarz, Larkspur’s city manager, offered insight from his area. “I checked with Chief Norton of the Central Marin Police Authority,” Schwarz said. “He reports that our three communities have not experienced the volume of panhandling from the medians that San Rafael is trying to address. Generally, our officers explain to panhandlers in the median that they are violating Section 21950(b) of the California Vehicle Code (below) each time they leave the median and enter the traffic lanes to collect money. It is a violation because their entry into the traffic lane constitutes a hazardous condition. Our officers find that this warning, in concert with their presence, tends to move the panhandlers along.”

“The Town of Corte Madera will not be addressing the issue of panhandlers at this time,” responded Corte Madera Town Clerk Rebecca Vaughn.

While pointing out that the idea was floated that signs be posted opposing panhandling five years ago, Mill Valley Deputy City Clerk Seth Allingham said, “This is not an issue that has come up recently [or] is currently being considered.”

The Ross Valley has somehow avoided the problem altogether.

“We do not have that issue in Fairfax,” said Fairfax Town Clerk Michele Gardner. San Anselmo Town Manager David P. Donery added, “We have not had the need to address this as panhandling on roadway medians has not been an issue in San Anselmo.”

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