Panhandling is a community plague. The Eugene City Council made the wrong decision, but for valid reasons, in refusing to adopt an anti-panhandling ordinance this week.
The obstacle is that panhandling appears to be a constitutional right — a form of freedom of speech — so cities cannot ban it head-on. They must take an alternative approach, such as treating panhandling of motorists as a public safety issue.
Following the lead of Springfield and other cities, that was the approach embodied by the proposed Eugene ordinance that went down to a 6-2 defeat on Monday. Apparently, there is no statistical evidence either locally or nationally that panhandling of motorists causes crashes or related issues. Some councilors felt they lacked legal justification for the ordinance, which would have allowed fines of up to $50.
Reality says otherwise. It is hazardous for motorists to transact business with anyone in the public right-of-way, regardless of whether that person is a homeless individual, a street musician, a member of a youth sports team soliciting donations or anyone else.
Eugene’s officially lax attitude toward panhandling also sets the stage for confrontations such as a recent stabbing in west Eugene. Police said a motorist was stabbed when he confronted a man who was throwing objects at vehicles. Michael Steven Handy, 32, of Eugene, is charged with first-degree assault in the case.
The city council’s proposed ordinance stated, "Unless the vehicle is legally parked, no person, while a driver or a passenger in a vehicle, may give or relinquish possession or control of, or allow another person in the vehicle to give or relinquish possession or control of, any item of property to a pedestrian."
That seems like common sense.
Contrary to what was said at Monday’s council meeting, the ordinance would not have outlawed charity. Panhandling, unless someone truly is in suddenly dire circumstances, serves no one.
Regardless of whether the ordinance passed, the community must take stronger steps to discourage panhandling of pedestrians and motorists. The overriding priority must be establishing and expanding low-barrier shelters and other services so people can receive food and care for themselves and their pets regardless of circumstances.
Some panhandlers seek money for legitimate needs — and sometimes because they feel unsafe or unwelcome in existing shelters and day programs, which is why low-barrier and well-supervised services are critical. Others who panhandle want to buy alcohol or drugs and/or as an alternative to holding a paying job. How is the potential donor to know the difference? People give to panhandlers because they want to help, but that only perpetuates panhandling.
The city and its partners in fighting homelessness should make it as easy to contribute to low-barrier services as it easy to hand a buck or a sandwich to a panhandler. That should include an intensive, effective public education campaign about panhandling; installing theft-resistant stations and creating phone apps for accepting donations; and posting signs about close-by services so both the panhandlers and potential donors know what is available.
It is OK, and charitable, not to give handouts. Panhandlers, like everyone else in Eugene, deserve a respectful nod or smile. But contribute money to real services, so no one is left out.