Volunteers trained by the Curry County Sheriff’s Office will be going straight to the source — drivers leaving shopping malls — to educate them about the county’s new law regarding giving money or food to panhandlers.
The law goes into effect Sept. 4 and fines are $250.
“People don’t give them $1, or change,” Sheriff John Bishop told a group of residents, most from Harbor, in a meeting Wednesday night. “They’re giving them $5, $10. We’re causing our own problems by giving them cash.”
The issue has been brought up repeatedly over the years, as merchants complain about homeless — particularly if they are intoxicated — scaring their customers and shoplifting in their stores. But the courts have repeatedly ruled that attempts to ban panhandling outright have been found to in violation of the First Amendment and free speech.
These days, shoplifters know sheriff’s office deputies are few and far between and are getting more brazen. And store owners know that, if they call for help, about all the deputies can do is cite and release the offending party; there is no room in the jail for such petty crimes.
The goal is to get those panhandling for money to buy alcohol and drugs to move on, leaving only those who truly need help — food, shelter and medical assistance — for the community to assist.
“This is a tool to educate and inform the public,” Bishop said. “If the money dries up, they’ll move on.”
Some panhandlers do quite well sitting on corners begging for spare change. Bishop said he’s spoken with a couple of them who make $100 a day. In big cities, they can rake in up to $500 a day, he said. And then there’s no incentive for them to leave.
“A lot of people are naive enough to think people are buying food,” Bishop said. “By 4 in the afternoon, these guys are plowed.”
It can get territorial, too.
“A lot of them will fight over street corners,” Bishop said. “They can make good coin.”
The informal group, formed by County Commissioner Susan Brown, is comprised of residents and shop owners who are tired of people harassing people as they enter and leave shopping areas. Of concern to most is the South Coast Shopping Center in Harbor, where panhandlers fly their signs on a regular basis.
Oregon Department of Transportation officials said they will erect signs, and panhandlers themselves will be notified. But it’s the people who donate that legally are the easiest for law enforcement, to target.
“We’re a giving people,” Bishop said. “And we can be the hammer at this end. If you can get the general public to stop donating, you’ll truly get a handle on it.”
The group plans to talk with shop owners about the new law, post posters in stores and community gathering places, develop a list of resources for those who truly need help, train volunteers to remind panhandlers of the law, and get a media campaign going.
Such attempts have started to have an effect in Grants Pass, from which Curry County officials crafted the new legislation.
“The ones out there panhandling for alcohol do not like being contacted,” Bishop said. “You keep hammering them and hammering them and hammering them, and they move on.”
It won’t happen immediately, he added.
“The problem with the homeless is that you push them here, they pop up there,” said Ralph Martin, a former law enforcement official in Sacramento. “You push them there, and they pop up over there. It’s like (the arcade game) Whac-a-Mole.”
The group plans to distribute information about the law — and a list of agencies, organizations and churches to which they can donate — to people leaving the shopping area.
It won’t solve all the problems, notably those of the mentally ill, as there are few resources — even nationwide — since many were released from state facilities in the 1980s and 1990s. Additionally, Brown noted, there are increasing numbers of veterans returning from wars in the Middle East who are finding it difficult to assimilate back into society.
And drug use has reached epidemic proportions, further exacerbating the problems.
Another issue that wasn’t on the radar even a decade ago is the increasing number of pets, usually dogs, that accompany the homeless.
Bishop said he believes the homeless have them for companionship more than protection.
“A lot of people feel sorry for animals,” he said. “I might not give you any money because it’s just you, but if you have an animal, I might.”
The group will meet again at 6 p.m. July 2 at a yet-to-be-determined location to outline details of their plans.