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Pushing Haven option, Council mulls more restrictions on homeless residents

Photo: Michael Barajas, License: N/A

Michael Barajas

55-year-old homeless resident Kenneth Smith at Prospects Courtyard.

In addition, the new ordinance would ban asking for money or “another thing of value” around “charitable contribution meters,” or the repurposed parking meters placed throughout downtown collecting change for Haven for Hope. Haven CEO Block has been one of the voices pushing for the tightened ordinance. (Haven’s current pamphlets for its donation stations declare, “Put a stop to panhandling. Make a change with your spare change.”) Boone, Cawthon, and others worry the ordinance, in practice, aims to create a no-homeless zone downtown.

By the time the measure went to Council last week – sans a second half banning solicitation from roadways, which some on Council still want to see passed in some form by the end of the year – District 1 Councilman Diego Bernal, a former civil rights attorney, was sufficiently uncomfortable with the panhandling language. “When we’re dealing with situations like this, with policies like this, we have to strike a balance between our legitimate interest in providing a safe environment for businesses and residents and visitors, as well as making sure that whatever we do is done in a way that is humane and fair.”

The biggest issue, he said, is a piece of the ordinance that’s already written into city code, prohibiting individuals from asking for “another thing of value” – the language, he insisted, is overly broad, possibly criminalizing behavior like asking for a cigarette, food, clothing, blankets, or maybe even a job. “I don’t think the city has an interest in prohibiting that kind of behavior,” he said, adding, “And I don’t necessarily believe that the population that would be the subject of this provision, that fining them does a whole lot, or that increasing the fine does a whole lot.”

If people already can’t afford the necessities of life, then what does such a fine accomplish, he asked.

Seemingly perturbed by Bernal’s recommendation to remove those four words, several other councilmembers criticized him for trying to change the language outside of the Public Safety Committee process. Bernal, whose downtown district is the obvious target of the tightened panhandling laws, doesn’t sit on the committee. While Council voted to send the ordinance back to committee to review any possible changes, it was clear many at the dais didn’t take Bernal’s concerns all too seriously, wanting the ordinance passed quickly and as is.

“I think there’s this misconception that everyone out there that’s panhandling is destitute, and that’s simply not the case,” said Chief McManus, brushing off questions of potential unintended consequences of the ordinance. “They’re not looking for a sandwich, they’re not looking for a cold drink. They’re looking for money and in most cases they’re going to use that money to purchase drugs or alcohol.”

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