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Panhandling in Arcata tests the city's tolerance

Arcata traditionally has welcomed the downtrodden. But balancing the comfort of the haves with tolerance for the have-nots has come down to a question of just who is worthy of help.

August 06, 2012|By Lee Romney, Los Angeles Times
  • Richard Salzman, right, sits with John Dalkin, a homeless man, in Arcata. The Northern California city has banned panhandlers from holding up signs asking for handouts. Salzman is challenging that rule in court.
Richard Salzman, right, sits with John Dalkin, a homeless man, in Arcata.… (Brian van der Brug, Los Angeles…)

ARCATA, Calif. — Over the years, Patrick Steff has installed vinyl siding, repaired Volkswagens and worked in a pizza parlor. On a recent day, the homeless father of two sat disheveled in this North Coast town's central plaza, citations spread around him.

He has been ticketed for camping in the park and smoking on the square. That morning, a police officer caught him on a downtown sidewalk holding a sign that read: "I could use a little help today."

That's illegal here too if you're within 20 feet of a retail store, intersection, bus stop or bank machine.

PHOTOS: Panhandling in Arcata

"It's like an everyday thing," Steff, 37, said of the reprimands.

Long known as the "Berkeley of the North," Arcata traditionally has welcomed the downtrodden, embraced the leftist fringe and fostered a live-and-let-live ethos. But these days, the square is strangely mainstream.

While one quadrant is still dotted with homeless nappers, the immaculate lawn is populated by families with toddlers and its benches have become a prime lunch spot for working folks.

Behind the transformation is a host of factors that send itinerants a new message: Don't come here.

In addition to the anti-panhandling measure — which is facing a constitutional challenge — a sales tax hike paid for two rangers whose job is to roust campers from the city's parks and forestland, as well as enforce behavior on the plaza: No smoking. No skateboarding. No drinking. No dogs.

A homeless resource center that had provided daily meals was closed, along with the recycling center that for many was a source of income. And Arcata cracked down on the unofficial stoner holiday of April 20, closing off its Redwood Park to dissuade the stream of pilgrims who in past years celebrated there.

"We're changing our image," Councilwoman Alexandra Stillman said.

But balancing the comfort of the haves with tolerance for the have-nots has come down to a complex question of just who is worthy of help: The chronic homeless or the recently down-and-out? What about the in-your-face drifters who take handouts with little gratitude?

"How do you make a judgment of the deserving poor?" asked Michael Twombly of the Humboldt All Faith Partnership, which operates a shelter here and last month opened a lunch truck to fill the gap in services.

The New England-style plaza is the heart of Arcata, a town of 17,000 that is dotted with Victorian homes and surrounded by redwood forests.

Mixed in among families who have lived here for decades are Humboldt State University students, environmentalists, marijuana proponents and Grateful Dead devotees, who flocked here in 1995 after band leader Jerry Garcia died.

It was about that time, said Kevin Hoover, editor and publisher of the weekly Arcata Eye, that getting panhandled multiple times during the course of a block-long walk became "the new normal."

Ordinances followed.

Aimed at bongo drumming on the plaza, one 1996 measure prohibited sounds that were "boisterous, penetrating, repetitive [or] of unusual rhythmic or tonal character." Another outlawed glass containers. Bans on smoking, dogs and skateboarding came soon after.

But in 1999, when the city leased a building one block from the plaza to the homeless resource center, matters intensified.

"You could watch the change," Stillman said. Word got out to young adults traveling a circuit from Santa Barbara to Eugene, Ore. "It became a magnet," the councilwoman said. "They served lunch every day. You didn't have to do anything — just come eat."

By 2001, the city took aim at the whole downtown district, making it illegal to sit or lie on the sidewalk.

But five years later, city workers still were cleaning up dirty syringes, rotten food and human feces, according to a report. The bus station's ventilation system "seemed to suck in the outside cigarette and marijuana smoke." Restaurant take-out orders dried up at dusk because customers dreaded being hit up for food.

By 2009, then-Mayor Mark Wheetley was pondering an ordinance that would ban aggressive solicitation and place broad geographic restrictions on all panhandling. Although some residents welcomed the idea, most called it a blow to the vulnerable.

Wheetley, Stillman and current Mayor Michael Winkler embraced the measure when it came to a vote in March 2010. Councilman Shane Brinton opposed, calling the restriction on non-aggressive behavior a likely infringement on constitutionally protected speech.

Councilwoman Susan Ornelas reflected the community's torn conscience: "While we're a progressive town and we're very open-hearted," she said, "we have limits on our tolerance." In the end, she was swayed to vote against the measure by Nicole Barchilon Frank, an observant Jew who practices tzedakah, the spiritual obligation of giving.

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