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Orange County Focus

LAGUNA BEACH : Merchants Demand Action on Transients

April 23, 1993|LESLIE EARNEST

A group of frustrated merchants who say aggressive panhandlers are creating a "threatening environment" downtown approached the City Council this week to demand a solution.

Store owners say there has been an increase in transients downtown and that pushy panhandlers are driving away potential customers.

"I have been told that they have the right to be where they are," said Paul Andrus, who owns a store near the post office. "We're really at the end of our rope. We ask you to take some sort of action to protect our rights too."

But Marsha Bode, program manager for the Laguna Beach branch of Episcopal Service Alliance, a community service center for the homeless and those with low incomes, said it is wrong to label street people as criminals.

"My suggestion to someone who doesn't want to give money is to look the person in the eye and say, 'Sorry, not today,' " she said. "Violent people and criminals are not homeless. They're making a better living than these people."

Police admit that they have difficulty dealing with aggressive panhandlers because the complaining person must be willing to make a citizen's arrest before the officer can take action.

"The majority of persons . . . were very reluctant to get involved," Deputy Police Chief Jim Spreine told the council. Spreine said he himself has been approached by panhandlers downtown.

"I have the advantage of taking out my badge and saying, 'You don't want to do that,' " he said.

Spreine said it is not illegal to ask for money unless it is done in a challenging, rude or aggressive manner. "Abusive language" is protected under the First Amendment unless it is creating a disturbance, he said. Even public urination is not illegal unless it is "clearly offensive," he said, as in the case of someone exposing himself.

However, Spreine said law enforcement is determined to take what steps it can to help solve the problem, including beefing up foot patrols in areas where transients tend to congregate, for example, near the post office and at Forest Avenue and Coast Highway.

In addition, Spreine will hold a meeting with concerned citizens at the Wells Fargo Bank on Glenneyre Street on Friday at 2:30 p.m. to further address the matter and to look for "legal methods of dealing with these problems."

"It's embarrassing to the Police Department too," he said. "We don't like seeing it. We don't want them to believe we're unwilling to do the job."

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