Right up there with roads, the budget and the ever-present debate over zoning, representatives of Spokane Valley’s governing board have seen the issue of panhandling climb steadily on the municipal priority list.
Earlier this month, the City Council readdressed the topic with help from Cary Driskell, Spokane Valley deputy city attorney, who provided an overview of local statutes while trying to provide leaders with a legal roadmap for instituting a new ordinance that would define the city’s stance on what many feel is a growing problem.
“It’s gotten out of hand,” said Council Member Brenda Grassel at the July 13 meeting. “It’s the number one issue we hear from constituents.”
Much of the concern at City Hall hearkens back to data gathered by a committee last year showing that up to 90 percent of handouts given to local panhandlers go to purchase alcohol or drugs. Research showed that many who carry cardboard signs have some sort of permanent residence.
Grassel has been among those in favor of more stringent guidelines, referring to cities like Issaquah, where panhandling is prohibited on freeway on and off ramps as well as specific intersections.
“I think once we’ve put in regulations and follow them, it’s going to make a difference,” Grassel said at a council meeting in June.
Such has been the case in Liberty Lake where Police Chief Brian Asmus said residents “are educated about panhandlers.” Asmus said he and other officers will be notified by citizens if panhandling is occurring on a street corner. Police respond quickly and inform panhandlers that the practice is discouraged in Liberty Lake. In some cases, transportation is provided. The approach, Asmus said, has led to an understanding.
“We talk to panhandlers, and they say it’s not as profitable in Liberty Lake,” he said.
The change to Spokane Valley’s municipal code would address potential safety risks and impediments to traffic, Driskell explained on July 13. Current state law stipulates that panhandlers cannot step into the street or obstruct vehicles in any way. Spokane Valley’s new standards would specifically address the collection of donations on state routes like Trent, on and off ramps and major arterials such as Sprague Avenue.
Driskell said the revised standards would center around two components – solicitation and stepping into the roadway to receive a donation. He added that the city has backed off from consideration of a panhandling ban on all sidewalks, a ruling upheld last month by a three-judge panel with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals regarding a case in Redondo Beach, Calif. That decision is currently pending review.
A second reading on changes to Spokane Valley’s panhandling ordinance is scheduled for the Aug. 10 City Council meeting.
Meanwhile, a nonprofit Spokane Valley-based group called ChangePoint is doing its part to address those on street corners with an outreach effort and funding alternatives for citizens hoping to help.
As part of a program called “Change for the Better,” ChangePoint Director Ian Robertson is working with local retailers to incorporate a system in which residents can donate money at Spokane Valley stores instead of giving directly to panhandlers. The funds would be utilized by local social service agencies like Meals on Wheels and Spokane Valley Partners to help the less fortunate.
“It’s about educating the public that there’s a better way to help these people,” Robertson said.
ChangePoint has also printed out cards to be distributed to panhandlers that include resource information about food, clothing, emergency assistance and counseling. The agency is also providing transportation to its office at the SVP building on Broadway. Last month, Robertson told City Council the story of a panhandler who had taken the employment training courses at ChangePoint and was now ready to work.
Kent Mankins, a pastor at Valley Assembly of God, has been working with ChangePoint on outreach efforts to panhandlers. Robertson said the goal is to eventually have a dozen local churches assigned to specific intersections in the Valley.
Mankins said he now is on a first-name basis with many panhandlers.
“It’s not going to transform people’s lives right away, but it’s a start,” he said. “We want to be there to help them and get them back on their feet.”
Want to find out more?
To learn more about the programs offered through ChangePoint, call 927-1153, ext. 28.