BY LAURA LIERA Californian staff writer firstname.lastname@example.org
You've seen him on the corner of a Bakersfield street holding a sign that reads: "Hungry. Any spare change would help." Or she's followed you to your car, telling you she has no money to feed the family.
Panhandlers approach strangers and beg for money or food. As Bakersfield grapples with the issue of panhandling, officials and community leaders are looking to a new ordinance in Visalia as a starting model.
Visalia Code Enforcement Manager Tracy Robertshaw said the new law -- which just went into effect Friday -- bans panhandling in parking lots.
"We had many complaints of locals who were approached by panhandlers as they approached their car, and people were frightened," Robertshaw said.
Robertshaw joined a panel of people convened by The Californian to discuss panhandling Friday on the "First Look with Scott Cox" simulcast.
The code enforcement manager said Visalia's ordinance does not prohibit panhandling on sidewalks or other public places. But it's a step in the right direction.
"It's a great starting point and it's very specific," said Bob Bell, chairman of the Downtown Bakersfield Development Corp.
Bell said he wants local organizations to collaborate to create an ordinance that would help panhandlers get off the streets and into jobs that would help society.
He said Bakersfield's panhandlers are organized and aggressive because they know how to get money.
"Our community is sympathetic but most think that this is the only resource the panhandlers have to stay alive," Bell said. "That is not true."
Bell said many people think all panhandlers are homeless, but a large percentage are not.
"They are taking other people's money to survive instead of working together to make our society better," he said.
Ward 2 Bakersfield City Councilman Terry Maxwell, who also joined the panel, last week directed the council's Legislative and Litigation Committee to consider a request from the Downtown Business Association chairman for a no-panhandling policy.
A MOTHER'S STORY
Lizz Rodriguez said she prays every morning and night that her son returns home. But under one condition -- he is welcome as long as he is not under the influence of drugs.
"My son is a heroin addict and he gets the money by panhandling," Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez's story came to light after she sent a Letter to the Editor to The Californian that was published Dec. 2, and followed up with a longer opinion piece.
She had posted comments on her Facebook page, urging friends not to give money to panhandlers, as this feeds into the drug and alcohol addictions that many panhandlers face, her son included.
"He has a warm bed, warm food, clothing, but he chooses to do drugs and although I love him, I as a mother, have a limit," Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez said her son has told her he can collect an average of $80 in one hour, a chunk of cash that feeds his addiction for an entire day.
When she figured out her son was using money she gave him that was meant to see a movie or go to dinner with a friend to instead buy drugs, Rodriguez realized she was enabling him.
"We have to open our eyes and tell them we can no longer enable them," Rodriguez said.
For any solution, a cost comes into play.
Many people who panhandle struggle with addictions, said Louis Gill, CEO of the Bakersfield Homeless Center and the Alliance Against Family Violence and Sexual Assault.
"The problem with addiction is that as long as the addiction is still active, that person will do anything to use or drink," Gill said. "It turns people into what they weren't meant to be."
The cost of turning a person's life around requires money, Gill said. Professionals will need to be available to help individuals, but it's worth it.
"Nobody is a throwaway," Gill said. "No matter how far a person has fallen, everyone has an opportunity to change, and it's our obligation to love and get them back into a stable life," Gill said.