by BRITTANY WILMES & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & I & lt;/span & t's a cool fall morning as Jeff stands in the gravel at the intersection of Sprague Avenue and Interstate 90 holding a cardboard sign that says, "Need a job. Can you help?" Jeff, who won't give his last name, is 47. He hurt his back working construction and receives disability. He sleeps on the street in Spokane and takes a bus to the valley seven days a week to panhandle.
Panhandling, he says, has got him through lean times and occasionally led to temporary jobs, but it's not easy. "[People] automatically assume that you're a drug addict or an alcoholic, and that's not always the case," he says. "People have thrown beer bottles, cherry pies, anything you could imagine."
Soon, however, he may have to contend with something else: city regulations. This summer, the Spokane Valley City Council formed a committee to examine panhandling, which, according to some, is a growing problem. Officials have begun to draft ordinances to regulate panhandling and plan to form an action network to connect panhandlers to social services. The Spokane City Council will look at similar ordinances next month.
Officials drafting these laws say they're designed to keep for panhandlers safe, not to restrict their rights. It's important that both panhandlers and the public receive education, says Spokane city research analyst Todd Babcock. "There are always concerns with criminalizing homelessness or not being compassionate," he says. "That's definitely not the intent."
Some advocates for the poor and homeless worry that the ordinances may be a veiled way to ban panhandling. "The fact that you're uncomfortable with someone's right doesn't give you reason to restrict it," says Bonne Beavers of Spokane's Center For Justice. "Homeless people may be unfairly targeted. It's getting to be even more concerning because so much of our public commons is being privatized."
City ordinances would have to have a narrow focus to be considered constitutional, says Beavers, and they can't target homeless or poor people. "If the city allows firefighters to collect money, or allows kids to sell carwashes, those ordinances won't pass," she says.
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & T & lt;/span & he Spokane Valley City Council took up the issue of panhandling after hearing concerns from police officers, who say panhandlers have become increasingly violent and aggressive. Some panhandlers target people in cars, endangering themselves and others, says city councilmember Bill Gothmann, the committee chairman. In one case, police say, a panhandler got into a woman's car and wouldn't leave until he got money.
Panhandlers also leave trash and personal belongings in "flop" areas in alleyways, leaving a mess for property owners to clean, says Gothmann.
Gothmann and others on the committee researched regulations in other cities and put together statistics on panhandling in Spokane Valley. Using national data and local police reports, they've provided the council a snapshot of a typical panhandler (though the information was not specific to panhandlers within the city). They found that roughly 80 percent of panhandlers support drug and alcohol habits, and that most panhandlers are not homeless, but may have criminal records or health problems that make it difficult to find employment.
Nevertheless, as much as some may want to prohibit panhandling outright, the Washington State Supreme Court has ruled that it cannot be outlawed because it is a form of free speech. Gothmann agrees, but says that panhandling needs to be regulated to keep people safe.
"To me, the courts were right. We have to permit people who have genuine need to panhandle," he says.
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & O & lt;/span & ne ordinance being considered by both cities would restrict panhandlers from soliciting on medians. Spokane city attorney Mike Piccolo says that another possible ordinance would prohibit panhandling within 100 feet of certain areas such as ATMs, pay phones or bus stops. A third recommendation would prohibit motorists and passengers from giving while in a traffic lane. Spokane city government will present the ordinances to Spokane City Council in the next few weeks for consideration, says Piccolo.
Gothmann says that the police department receives frequent calls about public fights amongst panhandlers. Near the Spokane Valley Wal-Mart, panhandlers work in shifts because it's a profitable area, but Gothmann says they are often under the influence of drugs or alcohol and end up fighting. Some Spokane Valley business owners don't allow their employees to go out alone to dumpsters because of fear of panhandlers.
Current ordinances prohibit interference with traffic and aggressive panhandling, but tickets are often ignored, Gothmann says. When a panhandler becomes aggressive by standing in traffic or getting into a vehicle, people usually don't want to press charges, and the police must release the offender, he says.
Not only is increased safety important; panhandlers need information about resources available to them, Gothmann says. The committee recommended the formation of a "panhandling action network," including religious groups, businesses and service clubs.
Connie Nelson, a fellow committee member, says that education is crucial. "Giving money to panhandlers doesn't get them off the streets," she says. "A better option is to direct them to services that will help them get off the streets."
One idea being looked at comes from Portland, where downtown businesses installed meters in their buildings so that people could donate to social service organizations, rather than directly to panhandlers. "There's no use in trying to reinvent the wheel," Gothmann says.
Based on the committee's report, Gothmann says it's important that the public realizes there are more effective ways to help people. "What a horrible thing to give a buck to someone when statistics show that 80 to 90 percent of that will go to drugs and alcohol," he says.
One of the most popular locations in Spokane Valley is the intersection of Sullivan and I-90, says Gothmann. Other hot spots are around the Spokane Valley Mall and Wal-Mart on Broadway Avenue. A Wal-Mart spokesman says that the company's solicitation policy only permits nonprofit groups to fundraise on the property with prior permission. When contacted, Wal-Mart district manager's office gave no further comment.
Leonard Cotton panhandles at I-90 and Sullivan and a couple of other spots an average of five days a week, year-round. Cotton is 68 and also on disability. He lives in a one-bedroom apartment in Spokane and drives to Spokane Valley to panhandle because it's more profitable, he says.
"I've had good experiences over the years. People give me a lot of stuff. Food, clothes. I got these last winter," he says, lifting his fleece-lined camouflage gloves. On average, he makes between $4 and $30 an hour, he says. "People used to say 'get a job,' but most people are pretty decent."
Cotton pulls at his red stocking cap, shifting his weight gingerly. "It's not enjoyable at all," he says. "It's cold out here."[email protected]