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Panhandlers get another chance

Posted: Friday, May 17th, 2013

Courier editor

ALAMOSA — Hearing concerns that a proposed ordinance would be so restrictive it would essentially prohibit panhandling in the city, the Alamosa city council Wednesday night voted unanimously to table it.

The council asked city staff to modify the ordinance to strike a balance between the right to ask for assistance and the safety of area residents.

As proposed the ordinance would have prohibited panhandling: aggressively in public places; on private property where the owner has asked the person to leave or has clearly indicated solicitation is not welcome; within 100 feet of an automated teller machine; in public parking lots; within 6 feet of building entrances where the public has access; in a patio or sidewalk area of a retail business where food/beverages are served; in a public place at night; within 20 feet of a public restroom; of people waiting in line; within 100 feet of school grounds; or in the street, highway or entrance to a parking lot where the driver would have difficulty avoiding the panhandler.

Alamosa Police Chief and Interim City Manager Craig Dodd said the city council directed staff to develop this ordinance specifically to address public safety issues. He said he and City Attorney Erich Schwiesow researched ordinances from other communities and developed the ordinance brought to the city council earlier this month for a first reading and again on May 15 for a public hearing and action.

Dodd said the ordinance would provide law enforcement with the ability to address public safety issues involving panhandling, specifically ingress and egress of pedestrian traffic in the flow of vehicle traffic.

“This does not prohibit in its entirety the act of panhandling,” Dodd said. “There are certain areas it would still be allowed.”

Local residents spoke to the council during the public hearing asking the council to modify the ordinance to be less restrictive so people who might feel the need to seek assistance from others could still do so in a nonaggressive manner.

La Puente Director Lance Cheslock said he agreed there needed to be a balance between public safety and people’s right to ask others for help. He said an ordinance could be so restrictive there would be no place where folks could ask for help.

“There are folks where panhandling in the moment of time is their last resort,” he said. ‘Begging for alms is the right of the poor.”

He said everyone has heard stories of aggressive panhandlers or those who took handouts and then drove off in a BMW, but the truth is there are people who at the end of a day of not having work or enough work have had to resort to asking for help from others.

He said although the intent of this ordinance is not to criminalize being poor, that could be the outcome of it.

Cheslock said an ordinance like this should include input from those affected by it.

Calvin, who is currently staying at La Puente, agreed. He said for 19 years he has largely been unemployed except for temporary jobs. He said generally he will perform work in trade for a place to live, but that does not give him cash for items like dishwashing soap and toilet paper, necessities not covered by food stamp assistance.

Calvin said he sometimes will hold a sign seeking help, and those who want to help him do, and those who don’t ignore him and drive by.

“This is a pretty civil exchange going on,” he said. “I don’t panhandle … I don’t like being panhandled myself.”

He said he would be glad to help the city modify its ordinance.

Calvin also suggested that the city distribute its rules for panhandling so people who are doing it could follow them and law enforcement would not have to be called out to deal with it.

Alamosa resident Dan McCann said, “only by the grace of God go I.” He said he was fortunate to have successful parents and siblings who could help him when he had problems earlier in his life, particularly following his service in the military. He said some veterans and other folks are never able to get over the humps they have encountered in life so they solicit assistance from others on the street.

He said he also understood the need for public safety.

Resident Mary Van Pelt supported the comments already voiced during the public hearing.

Councilor Marcia Tuggle agreed with Cheslock that there are people whose last resort is to ask for money from others. She said the welfare system does not provide for all of a person’s needs, and food stamps do not cover items like toilet paper “so people do whatever they have to do to get those needs met.”

She added no one had a problem curbing aggressive panhandling, but people like Calvin who are not aggressive need to have places they can go to seek the public’s help, and she was not sure the ordinance as it was written provided that. She suggested rather than prohibiting panhandling in parking lots the ordinance could allow it in larger parking lots and restrict it a certain number of feet from the intersection for safety purposes..

She said to prohibit people entirely from asking for assistance in this way might make them take more desperate action.

She added, “Things happen in people’s lives and some people unfortunately have lives like that that go on for years and years and years. Fortunately I have never been there. I think it takes a lot of personal strength to stand out there and have people drive past you over and over and ignore you.”

Councilman Greg Gillaspie said the goal of the ordinance was to target aggressive panhandling, and he believed the ordinance was a good one.

“We do have panhandling. I think it reflects poorly on our community,” Gillaspie said. “We have so many resources available, churches, La Puente, other organizations that are here to help the needy. People driving through town that see that, they wonder what kind of community this is.”

Councilman Rusty Johnson said the ordinance addressed the complaints he had received, and he particularly wanted to make sure it addressed aggressive panhandling, but it could be a bit restrictive as written.

Councilor Charles Griego said the ordinance has such a long list of where people can’t go that it is hard to decipher.

He added this is something the city has had for a long time so he did not see a rush to approve the ordinance right away. He favored tabling it “and find a way where it works for everybody.”

Councilman Leland Romero said he liked the ordinance and the fact it was restrictive especially dealing with parking lots because he saw real safety issues there.

“It is restrictive but it’s also keeping the majority of the people safe,” he said.

Councilman Josef Lucero said, “For me to tell somebody he can’t ask for alms is something I really don’t want to do. My ability to help is my personal choice. I do, however, believe it should be done in a safe and friendly environment.”

Lucero suggested designated locations where everyone seeking assistance could gather. He said the safety issue is not just about motorists keeping safe but the people who are soliciting being safe as well.

Mayor Kathy Rogers said she had come to the meeting thinking this was the best ordinance, and the council at the first reading had moved it forward with that belief, but after listening to the people who spoke during the public hearing she now believed the council could reconsider parts of the ordinance.

“I know sometimes it doesn’t seem like we listen,” she said, “but we listened tonight.”

She added that much of the ordinance is just right, but it needs to accommodate people who are less fortunate.

“I can’t even imagine having to put my hand out for money,” she said. “My absolute heart and soul are with you.”

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