There was a line snaking through the hall outside the City Council chambers today as advocates for the homeless and downtown business leaders signed up to offer comment on Tim Burgess’ anti-aggressive panhandling proposal.

The marathon public comment session went for over two hours, as homeless advocates and downtown business leaders brought up familiar points—that the proposal would make downtown considerably safer for pedestrians, and that the proposal is an infringement on civil liberties. They did stray into some new territory, particularly over how to decide what constitutes “intimidation” by panhandlers, ultimately leading to a discussion of what seemed like downtown residents' real concern—drugs and gang violence.

Downtown business interests, along with the SPD, gave Burgess' proposal the thumbs up, saying it would be a benefit to public safety in the downtown retail core, and particularly for tourists visiting from out of town.

Interim Police Chief John Diaz said Burgess’ proposal would be vital in promoting safety in the area. ”Improving safety downtown is a high priority for the police department,” said Diaz, reading from a statement. “[This proposal] addresses common fears by people who visit Seattle.” Burgess said the committee was adding a clause to the proposal requiring City Council to revisit the effectiveness of the program after one year.

Downtown residents may not really be primarily concerned with aggressive panhandling, as Erica reported here, but the downtown business people came to argue for the tourists who, they say, were.

George Allen, of the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce, and Kate Joncas, president of the Downtown Seattle Association, both testified.

"If we're going to be a city where families go downtown during the holidays, we need to address this panhandling," said Allen.

Joncas said she thought the ordinance would make a noticeable difference downtown. "We want to send the message that uncivil behavior will not be tolerated."

The largest contingent at the meeting was from homeless advocacy groups like SHARE/WHEEL and Real Change, who were concerned about targeting of the homeless population.



“This proposal represents an erosion of free speech rights,” said Tim Harris, Executive Director of Real Change, accusing the council of caving to Downtown Seattle Association’s concerns over panhandlers.



John Fox of the Seattle Displacement Coalition warned the council not to associate with anti-panhandling bills, warning them against targeting the homeless like City Attorney Mark Sidran did in the 1990s. (Fox helped run a campaign—The Sidran Truth Squad—that helped candidate Greg Nickels beat Sidran in the 2001 Seattle mayor's race. It's not clear, however, how much the "Sidran" stamp will haunt Council Members in 2010.)

“I feel like we’re swatting at gnats, when there’s a pit bull gnawing at our knee,” said Council Member Bruce Harrell, nudging the conversation beyond the business vs. homeless advocate loop. Harrell's pit bull? Gangs and violence.

Harrell’s concerns were echoed throughout the comment session. “We don’t think the big problem is panhandling,” said Flo Beaumon of Catholic Community Services. “It’s the drug-dealing and the violence. This [proposal] is a way to get rid of anyone who someone finds aggressive.”