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Tuesday, Mar 04 2014 11:00 PM

GERALD CANTU & JIM WHEELER: On panhandling, let's not lose perspective -- or compassion

The Bakersfield City Council will consider a panhandling ordinance that, if passed, will make it a crime to solicit for donations near banks and ATMs and to aggressively solicit (making repeated requests, following a person to a car, etc.). This is the result of downtown businesses pushing the council to consider such an ordinance because of the increased problem of panhandlers in the downtown area, as well as Visalia's recent ordinance prohibiting aggressive solicitation, which has passed legal muster as a result of narrowly targeting aggressive solicitors. The desire to do something about panhandling has been around for years, and it's an instance of the more general desire to gentrify downtown by removing individuals who appear to be there for no legitimate reasons. Enforcement of a panhandling ordinance would be a step in this direction, so it is thought.

Ironically, it is enforcement that is giving the problem more exposure, even though homelessness has been reduced by 30 percent in the past three years. Every year, the Kern County Homeless Collaborative does a census of homeless individuals. This year, we counted 1,002 homeless individuals, a 13 percent reduction from 2013's count of 1,152, which was in turn a 20 percent reduction from 2011's count of 1,439. The problem seems more pronounced now because the city last year began doing periodic sweeps of the Kern River banks to remove homeless persons by seizing their property and requiring them to leave. Many homeless citizens used to gravitate to the river, where they were out of the public's view. Now that the homeless have been forced to leave this area, they have disseminated to other parts of the city. Many are now in the downtown area and are again in the public's view.

Businesses are understandably concerned about keeping their establishments free of individuals who persistently solicit. Aggressive panhandling can make people reluctant to patronize a business and force many folks to choose to stay away from the downtown area. Not only is this a problem for businesses, it's also a problem for all of downtown. The primary interest is safety. The sense of danger is real, especially for those of us with families.

This is a problem for the whole community. Even if we could get rid of panhandling in the downtown area, it just will relocate, usually to freeway exits outside of downtown. Studies through the Urban Institute show that enforcing laws against panhandling plays a relatively small role in controlling the problem. Without a more comprehensive solution, which includes public education and adequate social services, panhandling will not be reduced in the downtown area or anywhere else.

Another wrinkle in the desire to gentrify downtown is that individuals who seem to be hanging around there illegitimately are not only panhandlers (some who are homeless and some who are not), there are also homeless persons and other non-panhandlers who are mentally ill and in need of treatment. If we are not careful, there is a danger that we will conceive of them all through the lens of enforcement.

Compassion is necessary if we are to help these individuals. Enforcement alone will do nothing to address the root causes of homelessness and mental illness. For over a decade, the Homeless Collaborative has been working to end homelessness in Kern County through planning and action. Our success over the past three years would not have been possible without compassion and an attempt to de-stigmatize homelessness and mental illness. Every individual ought to have the opportunity to rebuild a life and to recover. The danger in the current moment is that our community will see the homeless and mentally ill in the downtown area as criminals that must be removed and will lose the opportunity to attempt a sympathetic understanding of why individuals -- panhandlers or not -- are out there in the first place.

Gerald Cantu , Ph.D., is the chief program officer for Stewards Inc. and chair of the Panhandling Ad-Hoc Committee. Jim Wheeler , MPA, is the executive director of the Wasco Housing Authority and chair of the Kern County Homeless Collaborative .

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