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Where beggars can't be sitters

Santa Monica is about to pass a law banning panhandlers and other solicitors from using promenade benches.

August 15, 2008|Martha Groves | Times Staff Writer

Santa Monica has a message for panhandlers on the Third Street Promenade: Stand up, please.

If you're going to ask for cheeseburgers or spare change -- or sell cookies (and you know who you are) -- don't do it while resting on one of the public chairs or benches.

That goes for you, Mr. Greenpeace Advocate. And you too, little Miss Girl Scout.

Having restricted, to some degree, where homeless people can eat and sleep, Santa Monica is zeroing in on panhandlers.

The City Council voted unanimously last month to prohibit solicitation by anyone sitting on public chairs or benches on the Third Street Promenade and the so-called transit mall along two neighboring streets, Broadway and Santa Monica Boulevard. The ordinance, which must be approved on a second reading, expected next month, does not seek to ban panhandling or solicitation outright but rather to free up limited public seating.

"The key issue is that the city needs to be open to the public," said Kathleen Rawson, executive director of the Bayside District Corp., the public-private partnership that manages the downtown business district and urged the council to consider the restriction.

When the city installed the slatted metal and wooden chairs and benches, Rawson said, they were not intended for use by people trying to make a living.

The ordinance is aimed at opening resting spots that are often monopolized for hours at a time by panhandlers, many of whom are homeless. The city already prohibits the promenade's street performers from sitting on public chairs or benches. Thousands of visitors and residents compete daily for about 100 seats.

Panhandlers will be allowed to stand as they seek handouts and to use the public seating when they're not soliciting. (In theory, Santa Monica police will be watching for violations.) Applying the ordinance to all types of solicitation should shield the city from 1st Amendment challenges, said City Atty. Marsha Moutrie.

Santa Monica, which already prohibits soliciting near bus stops and ATMs, will join other cities imposing restrictions on panhandling. Medford, Ore., enacted an ordinance this year banning solicitation at busy intersections, on public transportation vehicles and in public parking lots. Under a new law in Roseburg, Ore., motorists can be ticketed for giving money to panhandlers.

Denver and Baltimore have placed old parking meters around town and encourage people to put money into the meters instead of giving it to panhandlers. Proceeds will go to organizations fighting homelessness. A study in Denver found that panhandlers, most of whom were not homeless, took in more than $4 million a year.

Santa Monica is developing a public education campaign about panhandling and plans to promote the idea of giving to organizations that help homeless people rather than to the individuals themselves, said Julie Rusk, human services manager.

During the 1980s and 1990s, Santa Monica had a reputation for providing services and allowing activities, such as mass feedings in parks, that attracted droves of homeless people. The city appeared to be all but embracing the indigent.

But in 2002, under pressure from businesses and residents, the Santa Monica City Council passed ordinances making it illegal to sit or lie down in downtown doorways and limiting free outdoor meals. As a result, the city made the National Coalition for the Homeless' "20 meanest cities list," said Michael Stoops, the advocacy organization's acting executive director. He said the new ordinance was "ill-conceived."

"It's clear the ordinance is trying to get rid of unsightly homeless folks who are sitting on benches," he said.

Tony Robinson, an associate professor of political science at the University of Colorado Denver, said public attitudes toward homelessness and panhandling had hardened in recent years, with many cities passing laws that regulate the "time, place and manner of speaking." In the 1960s and 1970s, he said, society and the courts were more accepting of panhandling as an example of free speech.

In a 1972 opinion, U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, noting Walt Whitman's "Song of the Open Road," applauded the right of walkers and wanderers to be "nonconformists."

"Today," Robinson said, "we're far more concerned about public safety and law and order than free speech."

One recent lunchtime, little panhandling could be observed on and near the Third Street Promenade. One grubby fellow sat in a public chair, inexplicably holding a chain in one hand but asking for nothing. Chairs and benches were occupied mostly by visitors from out of town -- New York, Toronto, Germany.

Told about the ordinance, Sara Robins, 37, of Houston said she thought it was "fair to make it less comfortable to panhandle," adding that "the point is you don't want anyone to hog the bench."

Nearby, a street guitarist strummed a tune as he sat on a public chair, his belongings piled on a rolling cart and his guitar case open at his feet.

Standing silently nearby was a man who identified himself as Bam Bam, 27. His crudely printed cardboard sign read: "Having Visions of Cheeseburger. Please. Spare Change." A woman emerged from a food court and handed him a bag with a cheeseburger, which he tucked into a backpack.

"They're just trying to make it harder and harder to make a dollar," he said.

"I don't sit out here all day. I stay until I get a cheeseburger and a couple of dollars so I can buy cigarettes."

--

martha.groves@latimes.com

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