They're a sign of the city's decline and a contributor to it, residents said, and the frustration and fear haven't diminished since then.
"Panhandling is the No. 1 reason people give for leaving San Bernardino," said City Attorney James F. Penman. "Panhandling is a chronic problem with this city. It goes right to the quality of life."
Police say they've gotten the message and they're working on a plan.
"The vast majority of our (complaints) are about panhandling," said Lt. Mike Madden, who along with Chief Robert Handy is spearheading the effort. "This issue has created a significant hurdle for our ultimate goal of creating a safer city."
'Don't be an enabler'While typically only one or a few officers are trained to handle panhandling issues, that will become standard for all police, Madden said.
But Madden, borrowing a line officials have unhappily said many times before, said police can only be a piece of the solution.
"We're not going to arrest our way out of this problem," Madden said. "Our panhandling population knows this, and they often view us as a toothless lion."
Arrested panhandlers are often released again shortly afterward, particularly since the passage of AB 109, a law aiming to ease state prison overcrowding by shifting inmates to county jails. As a result, jails have little room for people convicted of crimes like panhandling.
"Our jails are full, but we'll do everything we can to help out," said Sheriff John McMahon.
The bigger change will be an information campaign aimed at convincing residents not to give food or money to people asking for it, and instead to direct them to shelters and other places equipped to handle the larger-scale problem of homelessness.
Money given to panhandlers is often used for drugs and encourages more people to do the same, said Judi Penman, who as executive director of the San Bernardino Area Chamber of Commerce has heard extended complaints from business owners.
"Don't be an enabler," she said. "We can't do this without you."
A tough request to followIt's not quite that simple, says Candice Martin, interim director of the Frazee Community Center.
"I know what they're trying to do," Martin said. "(But) every time I go out and I have money in my pockets, I give it away - and I tell them about us."
Panhandlers often are too far away from the help centers - like Frazee - to easily get there, she said.
And resources there are often limited, even without being responsible for people who normally get most of their help from the street.
"We're already really at that point," Martin said. "We used to be able to give food bags once a week. Now we're at the point where we can only give out food bags once a month."
Still, some assistance is available only from shelters, Martin said. And the more people shift their giving to established centers, the more those shelters can do.
Shoppers at several shopping centers said they were bothered by panhandlers, but would find it hard to stop giving.
"I live by the Bible, and I don't mind giving if I have something," said Annette Brewer, 56, of San Bernardino. "I'll give food, though, not money."
Camie Zerilla, 80, said she's seen the number of panhandlers skyrocket in the last 10 years and has often given them food.
"If that's what (city officials) think is best, I'll stop, if others stop," she said.
Just don't stop being compassionate, Martin said.
"They're human beings," she said, "and they deserve everything you've got. They didn't choose homelessness."
Not all the sameIt's important not to conflate career panhandlers with all homeless people, said Kent Paxton, director of violence prevention for Mayor Pat Morris and vice chairman of a county inter-agency task force on homelessness.
"They're not all the same," Paxton said. "The (San Bernardino City Unified) School District has huge numbers of homeless children, people who didn't put themselves in this situation."
That's not to say the mayor's office opposes the plan, said Jim Morris, son and chief of staff to Mayor Pat Morris. They support the idea of reducing panhandling and think the Police Department is the proper place to work out the details, he said.
Penman agrees some panhandlers are much more of a problem than others, suggesting in a January memo that the overall problem would be greatly helped by injunctions - punishable by fines of up to $1,000 and up to six months in jail - against a few particularly problematic panhandlers.
"We intend to identify the five or six most aggressive panhandlers in our city and seek injunctions from the Superior Court to prohibit them from panhandling in the city of San Bernardino," he wrote. "...Similar injunctions obtained in the past by the city attorney's office have proven to be effective tools in assisting the police to fight gangs and prostitution."
A safety issueThe McDonald's on 2nd Street is plagued by a few persistent panhandlers and others that drift in and out, said Matt Flores, the franchise owner of that McDonald's and another on the corner of Mt. Vernon Avenue and Base Line.
"I've talked to a few people who have been traveling through San Bernardino, and I can tell you, they're shocked at the situation," Flores said. "It does not encourage repeat business."
Flores said he's long thought the nuisance to potential customers and residents, and the related perception issue, held back San Bernardino's economic revival.
Since an experience a few months back, he thinks more than money is at stake.
A woman parked next to his restaurant was trying to wave off a man banging on her car window, he said, with a scared look on her face.
"I asked the guy to leave - it was obvious what he was doing, panhandling - and he (left), but the woman barely rolled down her window and mouthed the word 'thank you,'" he said. "That really irritated me, really got me upset, because nobody should have to be so frightened of someone that they can't say 'thank you' out loud.
"For me, it's really become about safety."
Previous attempts to reduce panhandling are all too familiar to Mitchell George Miller, 54, who said he's been homeless for the last 10 years.
"They arrest me for trying to sell recyclables or having something to drink because I'm too cold, or for panhandling, and soon I'm out and don't have anything to do but go back to it," Miller said.
A Hemet resident until he lost his welding business, Miller now lives on the streets of northern San Bernardino and was having a slow day of "asking for help" at the Walmart on Hallmark Parkway.
He said he's been to shelters and rehabilitation centers but never got the help he wanted.
Asked what he would do if people stopped giving him the money and food he asked for, Mitchell instantly sprang forward with his hand in the shape of a gun.
"Give me your money!" he yelled, followed by a profanity.
Mitchell laughed, then shrugged.
"That's what I'd do," he said.
Next stepsResidents can weigh in at a community meeting at 5:30 p.m. on Feb. 20 at Norton Elementary School.
Later, the plan will likely go before the City Council for its input.
In the meantime, officials behind the effort say it's time to change mindsets.
Charity is wonderful, Madden said, but it needs to be directed toward established centers that can help rather than toward individuals with a sad story.
"Wanting to help others is one of the things that made this the greatest country on Earth," Madden said. "We just need to find a better way to do it."
Reach Ryan via email, find him on Twitter @SBcityNow, or call him at 909-386-3916.