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Originally published February 25, 2010 at 12:09 AM | Page modified February 25, 2010 at 10:38 AM

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Panhandling crackdown urged by Seattle council member

Panhandling near ATMs and parking meters would be banned in Seattle under a proposal by City Councilmember Tim Burgess, who said tougher laws are needed to make people feel safe downtown and in other shopping districts.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Panhandling near ATMs and parking meters would be banned in Seattle under a proposal from City Councilmember Tim Burgess aimed at making people feel safer downtown and in shopping districts.

Burgess said tougher laws are needed to respond to complaints from residents and business owners, especially downtown, in the University District and in Ballard.

He plans to announce details Thursday morning at a Downtown Seattle Association forum on public safety. The plan, supported by Mayor Mike McGinn, is meant to tackle not just aggressive panhandling, but street crime in general. Burgess is calling for more police foot patrols.

"We have serious problems downtown with open-air drug trafficking. We have an extremely serious problem with robberies downtown," said Burgess, a former Seattle police officer. "These are not members of our homeless community that are committing these crimes. ... Homeless and impoverished people deserve safe streets just as anybody else does."

Crime in South Lake Union and downtown rose 22 percent between 2008 and 2009, according to Seattle Police Department statistics. A 2009 Metropolitan Improvement District survey showed 66 percent of downtown residents said they were concerned about aggressive solicitation.

Aggressive panhandling is already illegal in Seattle. Burgess' new ordinance would prohibit specific behavior.

For example, intimidating gestures or abusive language would be barred, as would following or continuing to solicit a person who has said no.

No soliciting would be allowed within 15 feet of someone using or waiting to use an ATM or a parking pay station on the street or in a private lot.

The fine for the civil infraction would be $50. Burgess acknowledged that many people affected by the rules wouldn't be able to pay the fine, so municipal courts could allow people to do community service instead.

Burgess first floated the idea last fall, but with mixed response.

This time, he attracted broad support for his proposal by combining it with a plan for police on the streets, better outreach to the homeless and city-funded housing.

While some still have reservations, many downtown social-service providers, the business community, McGinn and the Seattle police chief say they support the ordinance.

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"It's more and more clear that the economic success of downtown is really tied to it being a pleasant, clean and safe environment," said Kate Joncas, president of the Downtown Seattle Association.

Seattle Police Department spokesman Jeff Kappel said interim Chief John Diaz supports the proposed legislation. If it passes, Kappel said, police would work to help people on the street understand the new rules.

Many big cities in the U.S. have ordinances against aggressive panhandling.

In 1993, then-City Attorney Mark Sidran pushed a package of "civility laws" that outlawed aggressive panhandling and sitting on the sidewalk during business hours and increased penalties for public drunkenness and urination.

Homeless advocates called the new rules punitive, and The Stranger weekly newspaper portrayed Sidran as Satan.

Burgess is working to make it clear he's not targeting the homeless and not looking to outlaw panhandling.

"A lot of panhandlers are not homeless, so we're really dealing with a different set of behaviors," said Bill Block, the project director for the Committee to End Homelessness. "This is hopefully very narrowly targeted and doesn't become just a way to drive people who are homeless off the streets."

John Fox, of the Seattle Displacement Coalition, wrote in an e-mail Wednesday that any law that limits panhandling would be discriminatory and wouldn't work.

Fox had not seen Burgess' proposal when he wrote the mass e-mail.

"Even if Councilmember Burgess' anti-panhandling proposal is coupled with a call for additional services, you cannot trade away the basic rights of a whole class of people in exchange for a few more programs," he wrote. "No amount of added services is adequate compensation."

A spokesman for the local branch of the American Civil Liberties Union said the group has not finished studying Burgess' new proposal.

Doug Honig said the group hopes new legislation "protects the rights of homeless people and the free-speech right to let others know that one needs help."

News researcher Gene Balk contributed. Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or eheffter@seattletimes.com

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