MARTINEZ -- Responding to complaints about panhandlers harassing people in commercial areas, the City Council has banned "aggressive" solicitation.
The ordinance defines "aggressive" as creating a reasonable fear for personal safety. Intimidation, coercion and tactics such as blocking someone's path or following someone who has declined a request for cash may qualify as aggressive, under the ordinance. The new rules also prohibit panhandling within 10 feet of intersections and highway exits and onramps. Police may issue a citation, but can't arrest someone for violating the ordinance.
While acknowledging that a ban is only a first step, merchants and Martinez leaders hope the crackdown on belligerent panhandlers will improve the city's image.
"I also think when the message gets out that Martinez isn't going to put up with it anymore, people move on," Councilwoman Janet Kennedy said.
Police worked with Main Street Martinez, the Martinez Chamber of Commerce, Amtrak police, the Central County Homeless Outreach and others to craft the ordinance. Police Chief Gary Peterson said the city also will distribute fliers encouraging people to donate to organizations that help the homeless rather than give spare change to panhandlers.
Peterson said the ordinance only prohibits threatening behavior because the courts have ruled that solicitation is protected speech -- the First Amendment applies equally to Girl Scouts hawking cookies outside the grocery store and the guy on the corner rattling coins in a paper cup.
"Aggressiveness is the key to this ordinance, so people should not be surprised if somebody still asks for money," Peterson said. "But if they do it in a respectful, nonthreatening way it's not a crime, still."
The January 2011 count of the homeless population in Contra Costa County identified more than 4,200 people living on the streets and in shelters. But people who work with the homeless believe the number is far higher.
For three years, Doug Stewart has been working in Martinez to connect homeless people with services and help them get off the streets and into shelters and permanent housing. A core group of eight to 10 men, some of whom likely have substance abuse or mental health problems, is responsible for the aggressive panhandling downtown, said Stewart, director of Central County Homeless Outreach.
"Obviously, I care about the homeless, but I do think we have to have some boundaries. I think somewhere along the line these guys have lost how to navigate life," Stewart said.
However, some homeless advocates are troubled by the growing number of cities passing laws regulating behavior in public spaces, such as the failed Berkeley measure that would have banned sitting or lying on the sidewalk. In a report released last year, the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty found that more than half of the 234 cities surveyed prohibit panhandling in public spaces.
"Despite a severe lack of affordable housing and emergency shelter, cities across the country are criminally punishing homeless persons for life-sustaining acts, such as eating, sleeping, and panhandling, in public spaces. Bans on panhandling are among the most prevalent," spokesman Andy Beres wrote in an email. "These laws, which are designed to push homeless persons out of public view, do nothing to address the root causes of homelessness, but rather perpetuate it."
Tim O'Keefe, executive director of Martinez-based Shelter Inc., said about half the group's clients have jobs, but they can't find affordable housing in Contra Costa, where median rent for a two-bedroom apartment is $1,400 per month. O'Keefe said he doesn't have an issue with restricting aggressive panhandling, but he also urges people who want to help to donate money and volunteer with groups that provide housing and services to address the root causes of homelessness.
"I would like to encourage people that really feel compelled to put that money in that cup, go ahead and do that if that will make you feel good," O'Keefe said. "But get involved in organizations like this that are serving the homeless."
Lisa P. White covers Martinez and Pleasant Hill. Contact her at 925-943-8011. Follow her at Twitter.com/lisa_p_white.