News

Panhandling legal unless it's aggressive

By ERICA JAHN

Staff writer

Rain drops streaked the thick, square glasses of a stocky, hunched man wearing dilapidated shoes.

He stood at the entrance to Olive Garden off State Route 99 holding a hand-printed cardboard sign over the rail of a walker. At 10:15 on a Tuesday morning, he said he hadn’t made any money.

He seemed wary of talking about his situation, but revealed he only panhandles when his $545 social security check doesn’t go far enough. He said he has to use $490 to pay rent at his Tacoma apartment, his sign’s assertion of homelessness nothwithstanding.

He turned to go without giving his name, saying he doesn’t like reporters, and slowly pushed his walker up the slope away from the street.

Dini Duclos, director of the Multi-Service Center, told attendants at a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation homelessness forum earlier this month that the region is feeling the effects of layoffs and the economic downturn. South King County is no exception.

Homelessness has been on the rise for the past couple years because income is not keeping up with the increasing costs of housing and rentals, according to Caroline Woodward, resource development director for the Seattle-based Plymouth Housing Group.

The group, which canvasses the city of Seattle to conduct a street count and surveys homeless shelters and transitional housing units during one night every October, reported a 16 percent increase in homelessness from Oct. 2000 to Oct. 2001.

In 2001, the group estimated that 7,350 people countywide were homeless any given night. That’s up from a 2000 estimate of 6,500 homeless countywide, and 2000 was up from 5,900 estimated in 1999.

Plymouth Housing volunteers have no way of counting the people couch-surfing, staying with friends or relatives for a couple weeks, families double or tripled up in single-family units or families living in hotels or motels, according to the group’s 2001 One Night Count report.

For every one family accepted into the Multi-Service Center’s Nike shelter, 11 are turned away, said Nancy Hohenstein, director of community relations at the Multi-Service Center.

That works out to about 8,500 homeless individuals and families who sought shelter in South King County over the course of last year. About 9.5 percent, or 816, were able to be sheltered.

In addition to those seeking shelter, the Multi-Service Center keeps track of the number of people requesting no-cook food bags, prepared for people who don’t have access to a stove.

Between Jan. 1 and June 16, 2002, 139 different people received no-cook food bags each week, Hohenstein said.

Federal Way city officials and state and county agencies, including Seattle-King County Public Health, the Department of Social and Health Services and the Multi-Service Center, don’t know how many of the region’s homeless are panhandling in the cities.

The Multi-Service Center doesn’t correlate the number of people seeking shelter to the number of panhandlers on the streets.

“We don’t investigate that aspect of their lives,” Hohenstein said.

Police anecdotally find an increase in the number of calls to respond to panhandlers during the summer, when the weather’s more fair, but officer Kurt Schwan, Federal Way police spokesman, said they don’t keep records of the number of panhandlers there are in the city or on the number of calls police make in response to panhandlers.

Not that specific numbers would affect the way in which police respond.

It’s not illegal to panhandle — in fact, it’s constitutionally protected under the First Amendment right to free speech — but the city does have an ordinance prohibiting aggressive panhandling.

City ordinance article 6 section 188 defines aggressive begging as “begging with intent to intimidate another person into giving money or goods.”

Schwan said police don’t approach men or women who are simply holding signs on public property.

Even with aggressive panhandlers, officers are unlikely to make an arrest. They usually just explain the law and ask them to move on.

“I’d be hard-pressed to arrest someone for aggressive panhandling,” Schwan said. “We want to make sure they’re safe and make sure traffic keeps flowing.”

Thaddeus, 67, stood in the rain on the corner of South 348th Street Thursday evening with a sign that said “Nam vet. Hungry. Will work cheap.” He has a shaggy, gray beard and a single front tooth. A cigarette dangles from his mouth.

In six hours Thursday, he collected three bagels, two MREs and a can of Coke. No cash.

He said he’s never been arrested and never been issued a ticket for panhandling, but police officers have told him to stop.

“I understand it. Federal Way has an ordinance against panhandling and they’re just trying to do their job because their boss or the mayor got a call complaining that I’m out here,” he said. “But there’s a 1993 Supreme Court ruling that says non-aggressive panhandling on public property is legal, and that overrules their little ordinance.”

Although he’s currently camping in the woods in Federal Way, he said spent time in the military and visited more than 60 countries. Those experiences give him perspective.

“I’ve never bene truly hungry,” he said. “We live in the best country on earth and no one here is really starving. I’ve seen it, so I know what it’s like, but I’ve never felt it.

“Even our Dumpster divers live better than people in some countries,” he said.

He once got into an argument with a police officer when said he was doing God’s work.

The officer didn’t understand, so Thaddeus explained he was helping separate the sheep from the goats. The officer laughed and said, “So, the ones who give you something, those are the sheep, right?”

“No, it isn’t about what they do or what they don’t hand out the window,” Thaddeus said. “It’s what goes through their mind when they see me.”

Staff writer Erica Jahn can be reached at 925-5565 and ejahn@fedwaymirror.com

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