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Originally published April 7, 2010 at 12:33 PM | Page modified April 7, 2010 at 9:19 PM

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Seattle panhandling ordinance moves closer to passage

A proposed ordinance that would clamp down on aggressive panhandling is headed toward an April 19 vote by the Seattle City Council, where its sponsor, Tim Burgess, said it is "very likely" to pass.

Seattle Times staff reporter

A proposed ordinance that would clamp down on aggressive panhandling is headed toward an April 19 vote by the Seattle City Council, where its sponsor said it is "very likely" to pass.

Councilmember Tim Burgess' proposal was approved by the council's Public Safety and Education Committee on a 3-1 vote Wednesday.

The law would make it a civil infraction for someone soliciting money to block a person's path, refuse to take no for an answer or ask for money while a person uses an ATM or parking pay station — if that solicitation would make a "reasonable person" feel fearful.

Violators would face a $50 fine.

Council members Burgess, Sally Bagshaw and Richard Conlin voted for the ordinance, while Nick Licata voted no. Licata failed to receive a second for amendments he proposed that would have delayed implementation until the city funds expanded police patrols and increases its social-service outreach to homeless people.

"I believe it's better to do it right rather than rushing in," Licata said.

Burgess, a former Seattle police officer, said after the meeting: "It means that the council is willing to try new measures to solve our street-disorder problem and that we're not satisfied with the status quo. It also means that we are willing to take new and innovative looks at policing and criminal justice. It's a good step."

The committee meeting drew a larger crowd than usual. Supporters said the law would assure residents and visitors that downtown streets are safe, while opponents characterized it as an attack on the poor and the homeless.

Opponents' handmade signs carried messages such as, "Target poverty not the poor," and, "Like it or not panhandling is a civil right."

Ballard resident Jean Darsie, who opposes the law, said, "We have bigger fish to fry. We have people sleeping on the street. We have people sleeping in their vehicles with no hygiene facilities." She said the city should provide more social services and housing instead of "this punishment stuff."

Lisa Robinson, a resident of the Pike Place neighborhood, said she is "a tough cookie" who has learned to shrug off aggressive panhandling — but feels the tougher law is needed. "For people who don't experience it frequently, that can be quite scary," she said.

More organizations weighed in on the ordinance this week, with the city's Human Rights Commission in opposition and a number of low-income housing and service providers in support.

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The Rights Commission, in a 15-page report, said the ordinance "has a two-track enforcement process" that would allow wealthier people to pay a $50 fine while putting "vulnerable populations" such as homeless, mentally ill or chemically dependent people at risk of criminal prosecution for failing to respond to a citation.

Plymouth Housing Group, Downtown Emergency Service Center, Union Gospel Mission, YMCA, YWCA and Compass Housing Alliance executives, by contrast, said the panhandling law is a necessary response to "deteriorating" public safety.

"We believe that a combination of new laws, additional officers, regular neighborhood foot patrols and increased services and housing will improve safety and the quality of life for everyone in the Downtown neighborhood," the service providers wrote.

Councilmember Bagshaw called the panhandling ordinance "one piece of a fivefold program" and said she would keep close watch on how well the law works.

"I'm going to watch it very, very carefully, and if at the end of the year it's not working, I'm going to be the first person to step up and say it should be repealed," she said.

Keith Ervin: 206-464-2105 or kervin@seattletimes.com

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