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Riverside Weighs Limits on Begging, Head Shops

City Council will consider laws like L.A.'s, though officials admit the targets aren't a huge problem.

August 12, 2003|Seema Mehta | Times Staff Writer

The city of Riverside could start cracking down on aggressive panhandling and shops that sell drug paraphernalia -- even though city officials concede that neither is a major problem.

The proposed ordinances come before the City Council today and are modeled after similar laws in Los Angeles. In Riverside, the proposals are seen as a proactive effort to improve the quality of life and protect youths.

Under the measures, head shops, which sell drug paraphernalia, could not be near schools and other designated areas. City police officials couldn't name an existing head shop in such a location. The solicitation ordinance would make it a crime to beg for money near ATMs or banks, on public transportation vehicles, in parking lots after dark, or in an aggressive or intimidating way -- for example, by touching or blocking a pedestrian or car.

"It is very serious, and it's impacting businesses and restaurants," said Penny Culbreth-Graft, assistant city manager.

"A lot of people have expressed concern for their physical safety."

Past laws attempting to restrict the homeless have raised the ire of civil libertarians. But this ordinance is modeled after a Los Angeles law that passed muster with the California Supreme Court.

Some Riverside residents who identified themselves as homeless said it's a veiled attempt to push them out of the city.

"The mayor thinks that if he gets rid of the homeless, Riverside is going to be a better place," said Mary Jo Potter, 47. "Riverside is never going to be a better place."

On Monday, Potter sat near a strip mall with her husband and a friend, sipping beer and smoking cigarettes.

She said she sometimes panhandles outside the Maxi Foods Market when their aluminum recycling runs don't yield enough cash.

"You can't just eat rice and soup all the time," she said. "Sometimes you need meat."

However, the Georgia native said she keeps a respectful distance, approaches people with her hands clasped in front of her and thanks them regardless of whether they give her money.

"You don't have to be an idiot; you really don't," Potter said. "People need to know, just because we're homeless, we're not bad people."

Business leaders praised the proposal, however, saying it is a key aspect to revitalizing downtown. But some were skeptical of its effectiveness.

"It's a great idea if they can enforce it," said Mora Blackmarsh, owner of DragonMarsh, a store that has been downtown for 15 years and carries medieval- and Renaissance-related items.

"I mean, we have shopping-cart laws, we have no-public-urination laws, we have no-loitering laws, and they don't enforce any of these. So I don't know if they're going to be able to enforce this or not."

The other proposal to be introduced today would forbid head shops to operate near schools, churches, parks and libraries and would forbid people under 18 to enter them.

"We felt it was part of a balanced approach of trying to increase investment in youth and children," said Gregory P. Priamos, city attorney.

"We're trying to be a little proactive in the reducing the exposure of minors" to drug paraphernalia, he said.

Additionally, such businesses would be notified that patrons under 18 are not allowed.

Both ordinances will be voted on Aug. 26.

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