At the corner of Pines Road and Sprague Avenue, panhandlers routinely gather with handprinted cardboard signs requesting cash donations from passing motorists.
Less than two blocks to the west, at Spokane Valley City Hall, municipal leaders are trying to figure out how to address an issue that many feel has become more of a hazardous enabling dilemma than a charitable procession.
In early 2008, prompted by citizen complaints, the city formed a committee to research the panhandling concern. Council Members Rose Dempsey and Bill Gothmann represented the city along with five residents of the community. After convening for several months, the group generated a report that was presented to City Council that September.
The presentation drew upon feedback from a variety of sources, including Spokane Valley Police who estimated that up to 90 percent of those who solicit money use the funds for drug and/or alcohol. Many have permanent residences.
“We found out that panhandling was a problem all over and that panhandlers are not always the needy people,” said Dempsey.
Ian Robertson, a member of the committee who later served on the City Council, said that while many residents are generous in passing along cash to people on the street, the donations often make the problem worse.
“People want to help, but there’s a better way,” Robertson said. “Instead of giving them change, give to the social service organizations that provide the real help.”
Robertson and former Mayor Richard Munson have been working to increase public awareness through a nonprofit group called ChangePoint Spokane. The effort provides employment training and job placement for low-income residents, some of whom have spent time panhandling. Earlier this month, the Spokane Valley City Council approved a resolution supporting ChangePoint’s educational outreach campaign.
“We’re here to help those who really need help,” Robertson said. “It’s not about getting something for nothing – it’s about helping them to be self-sufficient, contributing members of the community.”
Robertson tells the story of one panhandler who was told about ChangePoint and began taking the employment skills classes. The experience, Robertson said, has meant learning new computer skills and putting the person into a position to be gainfully employed.
“We focus on reading, writing and social skills, but also traits like integrity and honesty,” Robertson said.
Council Member Brenda Grassel said she supports the ChangePoint effort to increase awareness, but would also like to see the city step up to curb the growing number of panhandlers who she says “do a disservice to the people who really are in need.”
“You can make it more challenging in your city, and a lot of cities in Washington have,” she said.
Grassel referred to regulations implemented in cities like Issaquah where panhandling is prohibited at specific intersections as well as at freeway on and off ramps.
“In Issaquah, it changed overnight,” Grassel said. “I think once the word is out that we’ve put in regulations and follow them, it’s going to make a difference.”
Under state law, panhandlers cannot currently venture into the street to collect money or impede traffic in any way. Grassel said she recently observed one panhandler walk into the third lane on Sprague to collect change from a motorist.
Cary Driskell, Spokane Valley deputy city attorney who provided an update on the panhandling issue at Tuesday’s council meeting, pointed to Liberty Lake as an example of a local jurisdiction that has had success “because residents know better than to give money to panhandlers.”
Spokane Valley’s magnanimous reputation is not helping the situation, Driskell added.
“It’s making a bad problem worse,” he said. “It’s such a wrongheaded way to try and help. I just wish people would give money in a more efficient way.”
Driskell said that while panhandling falls under the statute of protected speech, there are ways to make laws more stringent. The new standards, similar to ones that have found success in Issaquah and Tacoma, would specifically address the collection of money on major arterials and federal highways.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Mayor Tom Towey said the city needs to ramp up its approach to an escalating predicament.
“I know this has been a problem for quite some time, but it’s stepped up quite a bit lately,” he said. “Certainly the ordinance we have now isn’t doing the job.”
In the course of its research, the panhandling committee brought up cities like Portland and Baltimore where residents can drop their loose change into renovated parking meters with the money going to social service agencies that help the disenfranchised. In Anchorage, Alaska, an awareness campaign called “Change for the Better” educates citizens about effective ways of donating to supportive causes.
Robertson said ChangePoint is working to launch several programs including an outreach effort that would involve representatives of local churches monitoring street corners to provide help and resources. Another possible approach would encourage residents to donate through “point of purchase” sales at area retail locations. The funds would benefit social service groups like Meals on Wheels, Spokane Valley Partners and Hearth Homes.
“I think educating the public is the best way,” Robertson said. “This needs to be something we work on as a community.”