It's a Sunday afternoon and, just across the street from the downtown Seattle Art Museum, a panhandler by the name of Gerald is walking a fine line in the eyes of city law.
As pedestrians pass him at the corner of First Avenue and Union Street, Gerald thrusts out a paper coffee cup and asks for change. At other times, he walks up to passersby with his cup, in some cases coming up behind them after they have passed.
No one appears troubled by the nearly toothless 52-year-old, who says he got hit by a car years ago and hasn't worked since. He's been homeless off and on and now lives in a subsidized downtown studio, which he pays for with $339 a month that he gets from a state disability program. But that, he says, doesn't cover food, clothing or laundry. "The only way to earn my living expenses," Gerald says, "is with panhandling."
If Gerald were to step in front of anyone, he could risk being charged under a 1993 Seattle law that prohibits aggressive panhandling as a form of pedestrian interference. But in the near future, if he keeps walking up behind people or should get too close to a parking meter or bank machine, a controversial new law proposed last week by Seattle Councilmember Tim Burgess could subject Gerald to a $50 ticket from a police officer, whether or not a passerby complained about him.
Burgess says his aggressive solicitation ordinance is patterned after a similar law passed in Tacoma in 2007 and is narrowly aimed at specific behaviors