In hopes of curtailing aggressive panhandling and soliciting at intersections, the Martinez City Council has unanimously passed an ordinance prohibiting both.
“We’ve seen a recent rise in instances where folks have been accosted as victims of begging, causing them to give out of fear for their personal safety,” Police Chief Gary Peterson said.
The new law forbids panhandlers from seeking donations within 10 feet of an intersection. The enforcement area encompasses downtown, the Intermodal and shopping centers on either side of Highway 4. Offenders will be charged with an infraction, cited and required to appear in court.
Peterson said he heard from representatives of Main Street Martinez, Amtrak staff and police, and Homeless Outreach along with individual business owners in researching the law.
“This is not just a police problem,” he said.
But the question the council faces is one local bodies have always faced in seeking to restrict legal behavior: Where is the line? What constitutes aggressive panhandling?
Douglas Stewart, founder of Pacheco/Martinez Homeless Outreach, said aggressive panhandling intimidates and threatens: “following somebody, blocking somebody’s path, standing close to an ATM.”
The ordinance is one part of a program that includes a public awareness campaign urging residents to donate to social service organizations and not individuals.
“When people give (panhandlers) enough to stay on the street, that’s all it does,” Stewart said.
“I think a lot of people want to help, they just don’t know what to do,” said Councilwoman Janet Kennedy. “Also, when the message gets out that Martinez isn’t going to put up with it anymore, people move on.”
The council has been careful to craft a law that jibes with the state Constitution and the First Amendment, Mayor Rob Schroder said. Similar laws -- and they are on the rise around the country -- have not always survived legal challenges.
Between 2009 and 2011, bans on begging increased by 7 percent, according to a 188-city survey by the National Law Center of Homelessness on Poverty.
Courts have struck down such prohibitions as infringement on free speech in Salt Lake City, Utah, Grand Rapids, Mich., and Arcata, Calif. In a similar case that sought to restrict day laborers from soliciting for work, the court said the men enjoy the same rights as Girl Scouts who approach passersby to buy boxes of cookies.
The laws often have their root in merchant complaints, as do sit/lie laws, which have also fared poorly in the courts. Berkeley voters recently rejected a sit/lie law, designed to limit aggressive panhandling in downtown commercial stretches.
Here, as elsewhere, many panhandlers are in crisis, but not necessarily homeless. In Martinez, as many as half are not homeless at all – just poor, and don’t make enough money to pay light bills or buy groceries, Stewart said.
Poor, homeless or both can access services by calling 211, he said.
Clearly, frustration is rising with those who decline services, "whether they don't like the rules, find a waiting list, or don't have the life skills to fill out a Social Security form," Stewart said.
“These people are bullies,” said resident Mike Alford. “They guys hang out at the wall, urinating – I’ve seen women urinating out there, carrying plastic bags with a bottle in it.”
When Nob Hill Market installed “No Loitering” signs, people stopped congregating in the lot, he said.
“You’ve got to put the heat on them,” he said.
Developer Larry Lippow praised the council for its willingness “to confront this matter.
“Martinez will be a better place for it,” he said.