Aggressive panhandlers causing grief

Police say staking claim to your sidewalk can help rid your business of problem panhandlers and vagrants

Bijoux owner Shelley Muzzy said she has seen increasingly aggressive panhandlers chase would-be donors for blocks, as well as set up shop right in front of her store. After attending a workshop put on by the Downtown Renaissance Network and the Bellingham Police Department, she is now staking claim to her sidewalk in an attempt to deter this activity.

Heidi Schiller
   Aggressive panhandling, as defined by city ordinance, is stopping the motion of a person, or of traffic, to panhandle. It is a crime, but rarely goes reported, so its breadth is hard to measure.
   In Bellingham, aggressive panhandling, as well as other crimes such as drug dealing and prostitution, mostly occurs in the downtown core around Railroad Avenue and Champion and Magnolia streets, said Lieutenant Scott Snider of the Bellingham Police Department. This area also happens to be one of downtown’s primary retail and business districts, which tends to create tensions between business owners and their customers and the people committing the aggressive panhandling and crime, who are often homeless as well.
   The Downtown Renaissance Network hosted a meeting recently to address those tensions, specifically how merchants can deter unwanted, illegal activities around their businesses.

The meeting
   At the end of April a group of 45 downtown business owners, police officers, social service workers and city representatives met to discuss how merchants can deal with aggressive panhandling and crime.
   The event’s organizers stressed that the point of the meeting was to focus on strategies for downtown merchants and their customers to stay safe, and not to address larger issues of homelessness.
   Kirsten Shelton, Downtown Renaissance Network director, showed a 20-minute anti-panhandling video her organization produced with the help of the Bellingham Police Department.
   The video, which featured social service workers, police officers, business owners and city representatives, stressed the importance of not giving money to panhandlers because doing so encourages it to continue and also feeds many of those panhandlers’ substance-abuse addictions. Instead, the video suggested giving money to local social service agencies that provide food, shelter, clothing and services.
   Shelton also passed around rough drafts of posters to be used as part of a public anti-panhandling campaign along with the video, which she said is available at the Downtown Renaissance Network’s office on Commercial Street and at the library, and will also be shown periodically on Channel 10. One of the posters is a photograph of a homeless man holding a cardboard box with “feed me, not my addiction,” printed across it.
   Snider presented ways merchants could protect their stores and customers from aggressive panhandling and crime. He said he wanted to stress the difference between homelessness and crime; that while many people who commit crimes are homeless, not all homeless people commit crimes, and that crime is linked to larger societal problems like drug dealing and prostitution.
   “We’re going to have to take baby steps to overcome what society has created,” he said.
   Snider stressed the importance of collaboration between business owners, the city and police in discouraging downtown crime.
   One important thing merchants can do is to extend ownership of their business onto the sidewalk, he said. This means getting out in front of the store frequently to deter people from committing a crime there.
   “Get out there with your broom,” Snider said.
   Merchants should also try to change the tone of their sidewalks to discourage crime, he said. Things like playing classical music and setting up planters with greenery in front of their stores will set a tone that deters criminal elements.
   “If I’m a tough, I’m not going to hang out in front of the begonias, you know?” he said.
   Merchants should be sure to call 911 if they witness a crime, Snider said. Taking notes and having a camera handy to capture the scene will help the police, even if the perpetrator leaves before they arrive.
   Snider said he is almost certain the police would reconstitute their bike patrols, if the budget allows it, after the summer, which would also help discourage crime.
   Several attendees questioned what should be done to prevent crime and aggressive panhandling from happening in the first place, not only in specific areas.
   “Are we going to deal with them by just moving them from storefront to storefront?” one attendee asked.
   The meeting led to a discussion of the deeper issues involved. What contributes to crime and aggressive panhandling and how can the city and its merchants deal more effectively with the root problems in order for any meaningful change to occur?

Solutions
   Last year, Shelley Muzzy, owner of Bijoux gift store on Cornwall Avenue, began noticing an aggressive young panhandling girl who chased her victims for blocks, including in front of Muzzy’s store. Lately, she has noticed more aggressive panhandling, especially on Magnolia Street along Rite Aid’s wall where people both aggressively panhandle and urinate in public, she said.
   The issue affects all downtown businesses because customers don’t want to shop downtown if they feel unsafe, uncomfortable or even simply annoyed, she said.
   Muzzy, who used to work in social services, said she thinks one of the roots of the problem is drug and alcohol abuse, which leads people to aggressively panhandle so they can finance their addictions.
   She also said that merchants could do more to set a different tone.
   “Empty buildings promote a feeling of poverty and decay downtown,” she said, and added that more merchants should have attended the April 26 meeting.
   Muzzy said the she wishes all Bellingham residents would see the video presented at the meeting, likening the anti-panhandling campaign to the recycling and anti-litter campaigns of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Once more people stop giving money, the aggressive panhandling will stop, but that requires a major public education campaign, and therefore she hopes the video will be shown in schools and church groups.
   Jennifer Richter, manager of Otion on Railroad Avenue, said she used to give money to panhandlers, but stopped after awhile. Now, they recognize her and don’t ask anymore, she said.
   “I’ll be nice, but I’m not going to give them any money,” she said.
   Cheri Woolsey is the director of Hope House, a Catholic Community Service operation on Kentucky Street that distributes food, clothing, toiletries and diapers to approximately 10,000 low-income county residents a year. After attending the meeting, she said she was impressed with its decorum and the strategies presented there, agreeing that giving money to panhandlers was not helping anyone.
   “Do not give money to them,” she said. “At best, you’re financing their lifestyle as a panhandler, at worst you’re financing their addiction.”
   But the question of where they should go, and why they are panhandling, still needs to be addressed, she said.
   Having some sort of day center for people to get food and showers — an idea that came up several times during the meeting — would help, she said. But the drug issue also needs to be addressed.
   “Addictions are the worst problem we have in society right now, they cause so many problems,” she said. Unfortunately, addicts must “hit bottom” and then decide to get help, and that can take a long time.
   Cathie Miller, an outreach specialist for Westcoast Counseling & Treatment Center on Dupont Street, works full time on the streets and in jails attempting to get addicts into treatment. She helps eight to 10 clients a month —most are homeless — fill out paperwork to get into various treatment centers around the state, as well as arrange housing for them until they go, which can sometimes take weeks or months.
   She said many of her clients are aggressive panhandlers and/or criminals, and that addiction creates a cycle for this behavior. For example, a homeless client of hers completed treatment but on leaving did not have the money, life skills, or the housing options to sustain his sobriety. He ended up panhandling again after reverting back to drug use.
   This is a cycle Miller sees again and again, she said. It could be remedied by more housing options in the city for low-income people transitioning to and from drug and alcohol treatment.
   Katie Franks, a development specialist for the city’s planning and community development department, said the idea for a day center is not a new one, but so far no agency or organization has initiated the development of one.
   A day center could alleviate some of the crime and aggressive panhandling, but it would need to be well thought out and would need to offer daily programs as well as services, she said.
   In order for such a center to be built, the initiative would probably have to come from the Coalition for the Homeless, a loose group of people and organizations in the community working to end homelessness, and would need help from the city with development and funding, she said.
   For now, downtown merchants are at least better equipped to protect their businesses and customers from crime around their storefronts after the April 26 meeting. Muzzy said she intends to set up chairs and tables to serve her customers tea in the summertime as part of an effort to “take back her sidewalk.”
   But she’s still torn about the root issue of how to address homelessness, crime and aggressive panhandling on a larger scale.
   “As a business owner, my head thinks, ‘It’s not my problem,'” she said. “As a member of society, my heart goes out to them.”

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