Local News

Monday, Feb 24 2014 05:19 PM

Opinions, ideas shared in panhandling survey

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    By Theo Douglas/ The Californian

    Misael Ingles, right, data coordinator for Stewards, Inc., surveys Elaine McNearney, executive director of Dress for Success Bakersfield, about panhandling.

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    By Theo Douglas/ The Californian

    Andrae Gonzales, CEO of Stewards, Inc., surveys John Bilotta, director of operations at First Presbyterian Church, about panhandling in February.

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    By Theo Douglas/ The Californian

    Andrae Gonzales, CEO of Stewards, Inc., right, surveys Jason Cater, executive director of Bike Bakersfield, about panhandling.

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BY THEO DOUGLAS Californian staff writer tdouglas@bakersfield.com

Survey takers learned from business owners Monday that panhandling is not downtown's only problem, and the key to solving it may be connecting people with resources.

Volunteers from Stewards Inc. and Greater Bakersfield Legal Assistance continued a pre-survey of downtown business owners begun late last week on H Street by taking it east-west and fanning out down 17th Street.

Their goal later this year is to create a database of panhandlers -- who have become a problem for some business owners downtown -- to distinguish them from homeless people in genuine need of help.

"We're going to make a database of those we know who are habitually panhandling versus homeless," said Stewards Inc. CEO Andrae Gonzales. "What's amazing is I believe the city has the heart to address the systemic causes of panhandling."

Stewards Inc. is a nonprofit that manages Social Security benefits for the mentally disabled or elderly.

The groups' survey work comes as the Bakersfield City Council prepares to give first reading March 5 to an ordinance targeting "Panhandling/Soliciting, " making it illegal to "solicit in an aggressive manner in any public place."

Volunteers will question downtown homeless and panhandlers with separate surveys in coming weeks, checking back in with them and with business owners during the next six months.

But Elaine McNearney, executive director of the Bakersfield location of Dress for Success, which provides clothing and skills training for women to go on job interviews, said the ordinance is a bad idea.

"It's just too vague. I'm glad they're having the conversation. That's where it starts, humans talking to humans," said McNearney, who thinks people have to do a better job letting the needy know about resources. "I think we have the solution, we just need to get the horse to water and let him drink."

Jason Cater, executive director of advocacy group Bike Bakersfield, agreed.

"Do you think the panhandlers you see are homeless?" Gonzales asked him, reading one of the pre-survey questions.

"I don't know. They could just be individuals who are just getting money for themselves," said Cater, who suggested educating those in need -- including panhandlers -- on what's available is a better solution than simply giving money. "People do want to help other people, this may just not be the best answer for people."

John Bilotta, director of operations at First Presbyterian Church, said vandalism is a persistent problem, not panhandlers.

"People don't come here asking for money. We're a church," Bilotta told Gonzales with a smile. "Our main concern is vandalism. We got two broken windows last night. It happens, but I don't know if it's from the homeless or just from the neighborhood."

Kevin Bartl, chairman of the Downtown Business Association, which supports the ordinance, said he also hopes the focus on panhandlers helps differentiate them from the homeless and needy.

"Honestly, if anything good comes out of this, it would be to just chase away the people who are more vagrants and not seeking the assistance they need," Bartl said in an interview. "I think it kind of bubbles everything up to the surface for people who are in need, and we can get them the services they need."

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