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Please, Seattle, don’t enable panhandlers

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on April 18, 2010 at 5:13 pm with No Comments »
April 16, 2010 5:15 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

Take it from Tacoma, Seattle.

Perceptions of a downtown core become reality. If people perceive it as unsafe and in decline, they avoid it – and it becomes unsafe and goes into decline.

Downtown Tacoma went down that path several decades ago. It fought its way back, but it took an effort that could be described as nation-building on a smaller scale.

To help preserve its recovery, Tacoma has banned aggressive panhandling – demanding money, for example, of someone at an ATM machine. Pierce County, Lakewood, Puyallup and Federal Way have likewise made it harder for beggars to intimidate passers-by.

Today, the Seattle City Council is expected to decide the fate of a comparable ordinance, which would allow police to fine panhandlers who crowd, threaten, corner or otherwise try to extort cash from their victims.

This proposal – which is actually softer than Tacoma’s ordinance – was bound to antagonize some groups in Seattle’s large activist class. A coalition of self-styled homeless advocates, supported by the ACLU and the city’s Human Rights Commission, is fighting the restrictions.

To their allies, panhandlers are homeless unfortunates exercising their First Amendment right to plead with passers-by for the money they need to survive.

The reality is that many of them beg to sustain their alcoholism and addictions. Some are street toughs who know how to project menace without committing outright crimes. Some do attack passers-by when police are scarce – and it takes only a few such attacks to leave other visitors in fear of a downtown where aggressive panhandling is tolerated.

It’s also a reality that some beggars are gentle souls who may suffer from mental illness or other severe disability in a state that does far too little to help them. No ordinance can bar them or anyone else from asking for money in a non-threatening way – that is a First Amendment right.

Parts of Seattle’s downtown – especially Pioneer Square – are showing signs of decline, with visitors dwindling and long-established merchants shuttering their businesses. The recession is part of the reason, but surveys also suggest that Seattleites and others are becoming fearful of the streets. Crime has been rising.

Given the multitudes who have moved into downtown Seattle in recent years, the core should be far more vibrant than it is – by night as well as the day.

All Washingtonians have a stake in the health of the state’s leading city. Its leaders must not enable the harassment of visitors for the sake of false compassion.

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