City Hall

There Are Reasons to Support Burgess' Panhandling Crackdown

By Erica C. Barnett March 15, 2010

Tim Burgess' aggressive panhandling law, up in council committee this Wednesday, has taken a beating from civil liberties activists and advocates for the homeless, who say it will unfairly target low-income people and violate the Constitution. The proposal, among other restrictions, prohibits panhandlers from following people down the street, using abusive language, panhandling from people using ATMs, and otherwise heckling people who refuse to give them money.

The latest debate, raised by Real Change director Tim Harris, centers on a supposed "15-foot bubble" that Harris says protects people using ATMS and parking meters  from panhandling even after they've left the meter. Harris wrote a scathing editorial last week accusing Burgess of "lying" by claiming his legislation would only apply to people during or immediately after they use an ATM or a parking pay station.

"[S]ay someone uses the Bank of America ATM at Westlake Center, exits right and walks, cash in hand, past the street kids that hang out near the sculpture on the way to the Starbucks across the street.. A kid asks for money.  Does s/he get a ticket?  Probably depends.  That’s a bad law," Harris wrote.

I generally oppose legislation that targets a specific class of people—in this case, the poor folks who panhandle downtown. And I agree with folks like Jordan Royer—former city council candidate and a vocal proponent of the once-controversial downtown Alcohol Impact Area—that the ordinance will be difficult to enforce and vulnerable to lawsuits. (What I don't agree with is that it would target Girl Scouts—unless Girl Scouts are suddenly shouting obscenities at people who refuse to buy, following them down the street, or threatening them physically, that's just a silly red herring.)

But I don't agree folks like Harris who argue that downtown is safer now than it used to be. I'm downtown every day, and the neighborhood definitely feels less safe now than it did a few years ago. On a near-daily basis, I feel harassed, hassled, and even threatened by aggressive (usually male) panhandlers who follow me down the street after I ignore them or refuse to give them money. A friend who lives in Belltown avoids whole areas of her neighborhood at night because of the gantlet of yelling, aggressive street drunks she would need to navigate just to go to the corner store. And just the other day, I saw a man chase a family of three, screaming at the top of his lungs until a uniformed MID ambassador came over and made him go away.

Is that anecdotal? Sure. So is Harris' assertion, made at a public-safety forum last week, that Seattle is safer than every "real city" he's ever been to.

But I do think it's telling that so many of those advocating against this law are folks, like Harris, who aren't likely to be harassed, due to their gender, race, and size. It probably does feel safer to Harris, a tall, broad-shouldered white man, than to someone in a wheelchair, or someone carrying an easily grabbable purse, or a single woman walking alone.

That isn't an argument for new restrictions on panhandling—which, frankly, I think are unlikely to have much impact on real or perceived safety downtown. But it is an argument that opponents of the law should consider why some people may think it's necessary, and suggest better solutions instead of insisting there isn't any problem to begin with.

The city council's public safety committee will take up Burgess' legislation this Wednesday, March 17, at 9:30 am. Burgess says he'll offer an amendment that would make it clear that the law only applies to people engaged in intimidating behavior, something the latest version doesn't make clear.
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