When the city of Spokane Valley formed an ad-hoc committee in 2008 to study the issue of panhandling, Rick Van Leuven and the municipal police department were asked to contribute to the discussion.
The research revealed what many suspected already – that most of the money (up to 90 percent) given to panhandlers went to purchase drugs or alcohol; that many standing on street corners had permanent residences and motorists who stopped to donate change created traffic hazards on arterials throughout Spokane Valley, not to mention highway on and off ramps.
Van Leuven, who has served as the city’s police chief since 2004, will now be asked to organize his troops to help enforce Spokane Valley’s new panhandling ordinance, passed by the City Council earlier this month.
“Panhandling disrupts traffic and puts both the person who steps into the roadway and the motorist who stops to make a donation at risk,” Van Leuven said. “With the passage of this ordinance, our citizens should see a significant reduction in this behavior and a concurrent increase in traffic safety.”
Van Leuven echoed what many city leaders have said about panhandling since the topic became a top priority at City Hall.
“It does more harm than good when people give to panhandlers,” he said. “Residents can help in a much more efficient way by giving to charitable causes.”
That process has become simpler recently thanks to a nonprofit group called ChangePoint Spokane which is working with local retailers to facilitate donations that will be forwarded to social services agencies like Spokane Valley Partners and Meals on Wheels. Instead of giving $1 to a panhandler at Pines and Sprague, a resident can contribute the same dollar along with a retail purchase.
“It’s about educating the public that there’s a better way to help these people,” said Ian Robertson, ChangePoint director.
The new panhandling regulations forbid solicitation – Van Leuven describes these as “real or implied,” meaning cardboard signs with messages like “out of work” or “bus fare” would be considered a violation.
Panhandlers will be cited for being in a roadway or breaking the plane of a curb that borders a street. The new ordinance applies to major Spokane Valley arterials like Sprague, Sullivan, Argonne, Pines and others.
Panhandlers will also be ticketed if they are seeking money on a street within 100 feet of the intersection with a main arterial. State routes like Trent Avenue as well as freeway on and off ramps are also off limits.
The new law went into effect this week, although Van Leuven said there will be a two-week warning period in which officers will talk to panhandlers about the revised guidelines. Aggressive panhandling has always been a violation.
“We’re going to keep track of who we warn,” Van Leuven said. “If they fail to heed the warning, they will be subject to arrest.”
The ordinance also prohibits solicitors collecting signatures for surveys or petitions. Those advertising for charitable causes are not subject to the restrictions so far as the fundraiser takes place outside the areas outlined in the ordinance.
According to a press release from the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office last week the prohibited roadway includes “any portion of a road traveled by vehicles; includes the first five feet beyond the edge of the paved shoulder if there is no sidewalk and includes medians, which may be denoted by a physical barrier or solid yellow pavement markings.”
Those in violation will receive a misdemeanor charge and face a maximum of 90 days in jail or a $1,000 fine.
Motorists who obstruct traffic by giving to a panhandler are subject to a citation under existing traffic laws, generally a ticket in the amount of $124.
Van Leuven emphasized that the enforcement is not intended to stop residents from helping the less fortunate.
“I want to stress that the basis for this ordinance is to increase safety to pedestrians and motorists in Spokane Valley, not to stop citizens from giving to people in need,” he said. “I would urge people inclined to donate money or clothing to the disadvantaged to do so using one of the many charitable organizations designed primarily for that purpose.”