Back in 2014, the Turlock City Council added an ordinance to the city’s municipal code that in conjunction with a previously passed ordinance looked to permanently put the brakes on panhandling, but the issue is proving to be far more difficult to curb than expected and has city officials looking for other options.
“To deal with it responsibly and effectively is a very complex issue,” said Turlock Police Capt. Steve Williams, who gave a presentation on the matter to the city council Tuesday night. “It’s not just as easy as shooing people away or moving them to a different position or anything like that. There are many factors that go into it, not the least of which is the constitutional protections guaranteed to those individuals and one of those is free speech.”
Courts all across the country have struck down laws barring panhandling as being unconstitutional, which has forced city leaders to get creative when passing ordinances. One aspect is to prohibit prolonged access to an area, which is what Turlock did in 2013. The city council passed an ordinance that prohibited pedestrians from “stepping, sitting, or lying upon any divisional island or median island” for any purpose except when crossing a street, or if they are an individual approved by the city to do work in the median, like landscaping.
The ordinance did give the police department something to enforce, but didn’t stop the panhandling.
In 2014, the Turlock City Council approved an addition to the municipal code that prohibits “aggressive solicitation” but it has proven to be a difficult ordinance to enforce, Williams said.
The ordinance bars individuals from soliciting, asking or begging in an aggressive manner in any public place. Aggressive is defined as: Approaching or speaking to a person, or following a person before, during or after soliciting, asking or begging, if that conduct is intended or is likely to cause a reasonable person to fear bodily harm, loss or damage to property, or be intimidated to give money or something of value.
The ordinance also defines aggressive soliciting as physical contact, blocking or stopping free passage, using violent or threatening gestures, following an individual and using profane or abusive language.
Williams told the city council it has been a difficult ordinance to enforce partly because intent has to be proven and it requires victims to be an active participant in the investigation and willing to move forward with a prosecution.
California has a penal code that prohibits an individual from interfering with the operations of a business, such as blocking a walkway. But since most shopping centers are considered qusai-public spaces, it’s hard to single out one individual from the public at large as doing something that is having an impact on the business.
Property and business owners can also petition the court to implement restraining orders or injunctions against certain individuals, but there too, it can be difficult to prove such an action is necessary.
“We’ve done our best to try and deal with this through enforcement alone and we will continue to do all of the enforcement activity that is necessary with the public’s help,” Williams said.
Given the difficulties with enforcement, Williams suggested the city look to some other options to stop panhandling, including letting a multi-department city committee examine the issue and see if a more comprehensive solution might be found.
But perhaps the best solution Williams said is in the community’s hands.
“Basically, they panhandle because they can and they get the money,” Williams said. “People will give them a dollar or two and if they’re out there four or five hours a day getting one to two dollars every five to 10 minutes, they’re making quite a bit of money.
“If as a community we could maybe take the position to donate that money instead to a cause that’s in town, it might encourage those individuals to seek the services already established,” he concluded.