On Monday night, Sept. 28, the Ventura City Council will consider adopting an ordinance that will prohibit aggressive panhandling — this would include anyone who blocks or hinders the movement of a person being panhandled, follows someone who has declined to make a donation, harasses by word or gesture or touches a person without consent. The ordinance would also forbid engaging in active panhandling in specific spots. The proposed areas include near ATMs, while people are standing in line (at the movies, etc.), in their cars, at outdoor patios and bus stops. If the ordinance, which is being framed with similar language to an ordinance that was adopted in Santa Barbara last month, is approved, violators could face fines up to $1,000 and even jail time.
We believe that no one should be harassed into giving someone else money, therefore, we support the adoption of such a law. But we also understand that in a tight economy, there is little to go around, and just as working citizens have to tighten their belts, those who have lost their jobs are having a harder time finding legitimate work. This is forcing some onto the streets.
Because of this dire situation, passive panhandling — people sitting in certain areas, holding a cardboard sign, seeking donations — will continue to be a norm in our communities. And we, along with Councilman Brian Brennan who proposed adopting the ordinance, think that is OK, at least for now, as the City of Ventura moves forward with its 10-year strategy to end homelessness. It is not the ideal situation, as we and Brennan would prefer that all pandhandling would cease and those who need money could receive it through donations from organizations, but this reality is inescapable for now.
The real issue at hand, however, is not the ordinance, but rather a perspective that seems to be gaining momentum in this community about the homeless — that anyone who is homeless is a criminal, dealing drugs and causing a disturbance in various business districts.
We agree that those who aggressively panhandle, deal drugs or do anything else illegal should be reprimanded and punished. But compassion and understanding must supersede our desire to criminalize everyone who is homeless. They are people, many of them who just hit a bout of bad luck, and we need to treat them as we would want to be treated.
A couple of months ago, a reader of the Reporter called to divulge an interesting news tip. While recalling a series of events, she told her own story of survival after she became disabled with a condition that rendered her hands practically useless. Her key to survival: panhandling. She said how she chose a spot in Santa Barbara, and was able to make enough money day by day to feed herself and keep a roof over her head, at least to sleep.
The idea persists that our poorest can always panhandle elsewhere, but we must not forget that our homeless are our problem. We must punish those vagrants who break the law, but we can’t continue to criminalize anyone we see with a cardboard sign or resting in the bushes. If we perpetuate this anger and fear toward the homeless, it will only turn worse. Case in point: the senseless beating of two homeless men sleeping near the Ventura pier last weekend.
It is time for us to shed this negative perspective about the homeless and work on a comprehensive solution. We need to stop pushing the agenda of fear and anger, and talk to local churches about what we can do to help their efforts. There are great things happening in our community, we just need to turn our negative thinking into positive thinking and extend a helping hand.