A city of 18,000 about 45 minutes north of Seattle has become the latest example of a nationwide crackdown on panhandlers.
The Arlington City Council last month passed a law that prohibits panhandling within 300 feet of any intersection, freeway ramp, park, school zone, day care, nursing home, bank or ATM.
If convicted, violators may receive up to 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine.
The law also bans camping on public and private property.
Mayor Barbara Tolbert said city leaders created the law in response to a spike in panhandling and property crime, particularly near Walmart in the Smokey Point neighborhood near Interstate 5.
“I can already see that it’s changing the way people act,” Tolbert said.
Critics say Arlington’s law is one of the state’s strictest prohibitions on panhandling.
“The regulations about where one can solicit, where one can panhandle, are much broader than you see in most such ordinances,” said Doug Honig, spokesperson for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Washington.
The Seattle City Council considered banning aggressive panhandling in 2010, but Mayor Mike McGinn vetoed the measure. Yakima prohibits aggressive panhandling and bans all panhandling at 10 of the city’s busiest intersections. Other Washington cities have enacted laws and public education campaigns aimed at reducing interactions between drivers and people on the street.
It’s not just Washington state. Around the nation, more cities are enacting regulations that affect homeless people, according to “No Safe Place,” a recent study by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty.
Among 187 cities surveyed, 76 percent prohibit panhandling in certain public spaces, and some ban panhandling entirely. The rate of cities prohibiting panhandling is up 20 percent since 2011, according to the study. Many cities also ban camping and sleeping in public, effectively making homelessness illegal.
Arlington had previously launched a public awareness campaign that discouraged giving to panhandlers.
In November 2013, the city installed 10 signs at the city’s busiest intersections that read, “Keep the Change: Don’t Support Panhandling.” The bottom of the signs read, “Give to a Local Charity” (“Signs of the times,” RC, Dec. 18, 2013).
City workers in Marysville posted similar signs there.
The city of Mount Vernon passed a law in 2012 that banned any exchange between pedestrians and drivers at freeways and major roads. The law was proposed to curb panhandling but applies to any pedestrian interacting with someone in a car, including firefighters who collected donations from drivers for the Muscular Dystrophy Association (“Skagit Valley city says keep the cardboard, not the change,” RC, May 16, 2012.)
Deena Jones, pastor at Arlington United Church, says anti-panhandling laws like Arlington’s treat homeless people like outsiders.
“We’re not wanting to admit that many of them are home-grown kids,” Jones said.
Arlington United Church hosts a rotating shelter. Five years ago when the shelter opened, it hosted two or three people each night. Last winter, it hosted as many as 20, Jones said.
Other than the shelter, the city has few services aside from a food bank and a weekly meal program.
Arlington should start by offering outreach and services, said Cassie Franklin, chief executive director of Cocoon House, an organization that serves homeless youth; she is also co-facilitator of Snohomish County’s Homeless Policy Task Force.
“Where’s the supportive services?” Franklin said. “Where are the solutions being presented for these folks?”
Services are coming, Mayor Tolbert said. Cocoon House staff will soon join the Arlington Police Department for ride-alongs to do outreach to homeless people.
Tolbert said she hopes to have a family resource center open within a year to start helping homeless families with children.
In the meantime, The ACLU of Washington is studying Arlington’s ordinance.
Panhandling is an act of free speech and constitutionally protected, Honig of the ACLU said. Governments can regulate the time, place and manner of speech, but the laws should be narrowly applied.
“People have a right to free speech, and that includes the right to say you’re in need and ask for help,” Honig said. “That’s what panhandling is.”