CALLING CAPTAIN AHAB: On Tuesday evening, I went out in search of aggressive panhandlers. I was inspired by an ad I had seen on Facebook from Santa Barbara mayoral candidate Angel Martinez, vowing to ban aggressive panhandling. This was the opening salvo of his broader campaign to revitalize downtown by injecting some vision and leadership into a City Hall he says is conspicuously devoid of either. By any reckoning, Martinez — a retired captain of industry — qualifies as a serious dude, but I get twitchy when people running for office start talking about “vision and leadership.” I get twitchier still when such candidates also talk about banning aggressive panhandling. First, it’s been done to death already. Second, it won’t cure what ails you. And third, see both of the above.
As a card-carrying downtown worker bee, I have had the impression that the misbehavior of a few undeniably obnoxious street people has been strategically exaggerated to distract us from the bigger problems: exorbitant rents, rapacious landlords, and retailers who insist on selling stuff no one wants. But maybe I’m missing something. As a card-carrying Investigative Reporter, I began a fact-finding tour, starting at State and Figueroa streets, where two of the four corners were occupied by bona fide panhandlers and one by a young guy dressed in black aggressively hawking antioxidant-infused cosmetics to all female passersby, whether they were interested or not. One of the panhandlers sat quietly perched on a stone wall by Andersen’s Danish Bakery with a small dog and a cardboard sign reading, “Hungry for Two.” She wore a hat inscribed with “Jesus Is Boss.” Unless you were looking, you could easily have missed her. I gave her 50 cents. We chatted. She lives in a van with her husband, whom she met at the homeless shelter about 13 years ago and where she won’t go anymore. Lice. I did not feel intimidated. Across the street, I noticed female pedestrians veering into State Street to avoid the lunging advances of the man in black, who was trying to foist upon them samples of his wares. On another corner was a middle-aged woman sitting sad and holding a cardboard sign reading, “Anything helps.” No one veered.
It’s worth noting that in 2015, the City Council passed an updated version of the “abusive panhandling” ordinance that was already on the books, giving the law more paper teeth. Basically, it’s a bubble ordinance, mandating that panhandlers — even those who ask nicely — maintain certain distances between themselves and people eating outdoors, standing in ATM lines, waiting for a bus, or standing in city-owned parking lots. “Abusive” is defined as blocking the forward motion of the person solicited, using language that might incite the requestee to acts of physical violence, or otherwise creating a threatening or intimidating vibe. This ordinance, by the way, was passed at the instigation of Councilmember Frank Hotchkiss, a card-carrying conservative Republican and proclaimed Buddhist who also writes steamy potboilers about sexy Svetlanas bedeviling fifty-something corporate executives — and who is now also running for mayor.
In that same year, the Supreme Court — with a conservative majority — issued several opinions on the subject that seriously hamstrung the ability of local governments to regulate panhandling. Asking people for money, it turns out, is protected by the Constitution as free speech, according to the Supreme Court rulings. In fact, one could say City Hall’s ordinance is not worth the paper it’s printed on. That’s why police officers don’t enforce it and rely instead on laws having to do with strong armed robbery. Given the recent court rulings, it may be theoretically possible to write a panhandling ordinance that passes muster, but as a practical matter, you’d be pissing up a steep rope in a gale-force wind to even try.
As I walked down the street, I saw various and sundry panhandlers pushing baby carriages or bicycles bulging with their worldly belongings. Some flew flags. All had cardboard signs. Most referred to God, as in how much He loved me. A few claimed health ailments. A tall, thin man highlighted the cast on his arm. A woman blowing into a didgeridoo sat by a sign reading, “Help me fight cancer.” A couple of young bearded dudes with backpacks and dogs walked toward me. They smelled ripe. They fit the profile. But they didn’t break stride.
Maybe it would be more fruitful to bang the gong about putting mental-health workers on the streets instead of more cops. The real problem is the shouters and screamers, those experiencing psychological distress. Unfortunately, there are only 16 beds in the whole county for people placed on involuntary hold. That leaves city officials with the only option to find available beds at facilities to the south. It’s not an easy fix. County government has the mental-health department; the city has the people getting shipped off. I’d like to see some vision and leadership tossed at this problem.
On the last leg of my State Street investigation, I passed a young kid plinking the hell out of a uke. If he’d called it an “oook,” it might have felt aggressive. He didn’t. I then passed by the woman wearing the “Jesus Is Boss” hat. She shouted something out at me. “What?” I asked. “Thank you for smiling,” she said.