Homeless dilemma a sticky situation

By Jane Stebbins, Pilot staff writer October 11, 2013 09:12 pm

Just about every day, Bill Vogel walks along Sporthaven Beach, picking up trash.

“I just try to keep the beaches clean,” the Harbor resident told Curry County commissioners at a work session Wednesday. “But when I’m picking up 50 pounds of clothes, tents, sleeping bags, garbage. … Something has to be done. It’s getting to the point where I’m ready to throw my hands up in the air and say the hell with it.”

The problem, he said, is the homeless people, and he approached the commissioners hoping they’d have some idea how camping, trash-leaving and panhandling problems can be addressed.

He presented a few ideas of his own, including citing people who give cash to panhandlers.

He also suggested encouraging those donors to give to a local charity instead; deputizing volunteers to enforce rules; fining panhandlers and installing cameras in conspicuous locations.

“We feel your pain about the homeless situation,” said Sheriff’s Lt. John Ward. “We are constantly responding to calls about trespassing, disorderly conduct. But without more resources, there’s not a lot we can do with these people.”

That’s putting it lightly, noted Brookings Police Lt. Donny Dotson.

“It’s a multi-faceted situation,” he said. “People think, ‘He’s homeless, so he must be doing something wrong,’ but it’s not illegal to be homeless. We don’t address people; we address the behavior.”

He said most people who call the police don’t complain that someone is panhandling, but that, “There is a panhandler who is littering,” or is “approaching cars as drivers try to turn.”

“There are certainly plenty of other laws (to address the behavior),” Dotson said. “People call the police when they see activity they find offensive or they think is illegal.”

Commissioner Susan Brown said she liked the idea of posting signs in grocery stores to encourage people to put coins in cans to be donated to local nonprofits that help homeless people.

That could backfire, as well, the group agreed: If the community becomes known as one with free and plentiful services for the homeless, it could attract even more vagrants to the area. 

The biggest problem is in Harbor, where homeless people panhandle from those leaving the Grocery Outlet parking lot, said County Commissioner Dave Itzen. The sheriff’s office is down to six deputies — and those officers already can’t cover the 1,600 square miles of Curry County 24/7 as it is. Even if the law enforcement levy is approved by voters next month, it will merely keep all county operations at current operating levels.

Itzen noted that voters in Harbor rejected the last tax rate increase on the May ballot — and they are the ones suffering the most from the side effects of panhandlers.

Ward recognized the problem, saying some of the homeless population are getting more brazen, hollering at people who don’t give them money, kicking tires, making inappropriate comments at women passing by and fighting among themselves.

“This is a resource issue and a constitutional issue,” said County Attorney Jerry Herbage. “An ordinance makes no sense if you’re not going to enforce it. And some ordinances have been struck down. It’s a tricky thing.”

Most homeless people know they can’t get away with panhandling in Brookings, as citizens here will call police who, in turn, make the vagrants move along — usually over the bridge to Harbor, where there is substantially less law enforcement.

That the county has few resources to address the problem is the primary reason people panhandle in Harbor.

Herbage noted that none of Oregon’s 36 counties and only five of its 200-plus cities — Medford, Grants Pass, Sutherlin, Beaverton and Roseburg — have ordinances specifically addressing homelessness and panhandling.

In Grants Pass, for example, the ordinance reads that a “person in a vehicle on the highway can’t relinquish any item of property to a pedestrian,” Herbage said. “It’s framed around the issue of safety.”

Itzen thinks the safety issue is relevant here.

“I think there are safety issue considerations,” he said. “You’re turning onto Highway 101 (from the Grocery Outlet parking lot) and it’s a very busy area. There’s a ton of traffic, moving really fast, a ton of people and guys on both sides of the exit, waving their signs.”

Those guys are protected under the context of free speech, Herbage said.

“That’s another tricky issue,” Herbage said. “There are some (legal) tools, but there are some restrictions, too.”

One tool is to “trespass” people — asking them to leave or escorting them from the property. But that can only be done from private property, unless the person is causing a problem.

The problem can’t be solved with a blanket solution, either, Herbage said, because people are homeless for a variety of reasons.

“There are people who want to be; it’s their lifestyle,” he said. “There are others who have alcohol and drug problems. It’s a very complex problem.”

“One solution may work for one homeless person,” Ward said. “But it wouldn’t work for another.”

Complicating the issue further, Dotson said, is that some are even professional beggars.

“We had one today,” he said Thursday. “An officer received a complaint and went out to tell the guy if he was hungry he could go to one of the Community Kitchens, and the guy pulled out a wad of cash, and said, no, he didn’t need food. This is how he makes money — in his case, it’s a business.”

As to whether citizens can volunteer and become deputized, Ward said he “kind of highly doubted” Sheriff John Bishop would approve such a measure due to liability issues, the legal inability of volunteer posses to enforce the law and the image of vigilantism the community could perceive from such groups.

Vogel said he believes the problem is only going to get worse.

“The way the economy’s going, there’s no way this will improve,” he said, adding that he wouldn’t mind if commissioners enacted an ordinance banning panhandling even if they couldn’t enforce it.

That’s a moot point, too, Itzen said.

“Even if we did have the resources, where would we put them?” he asked. “It doesn’t work to put them in jail — the jail’s always pretty close to capacity anyway. Then they get out and just go back. It’s a larger problem than Curry County. They’re all over, on every corner, everywhere.”

“I don’t know how you’d ever get it to stop,” Ward said. “You can put all the educational material out there; that’s not going to stop it. It’s an epidemic across the United States. There are always going to be homeless problems.