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Seattle Anti-Panhandling Law: Political, Baseless And A Threat To Human Rights

April 19, 2010

This week, on as Seattle City Hall Turns, we find a previously underwhelming Mayor Mike McGinn locked in a battle with wannabe mayor, city councilmember Tim Burgess over a new Seattle ordinance its opponents say unfairly targets panhandlers.

The saga began months ago when Burgess introduced the ordinance as a measure to improve public safety in downtown Seattle.  He said the new provisions were perfectly reasonable and called for putting an end to so-called intimidation by aggressive people.  He said vital tourist dollars were at stake, as if Seattle has a reputation for aggressive panhandlers.

The opposition pounced, including the Seattle Human Rights Commission, which issued a damning 15 page report and a unanimous vote against Burgess’ plan.

They outlined a laundry list of potential human rights violations against homeless persons, and attacked the credibility of the data used to bolster Burgess’ proposal.

For example:

Under the ordinance, an individual is liable for a civil infraction for aggressive solicitation. The individual must appear in court to object to the infraction or pay a $50 fine within 15 days.

This is a Human rights concern because homeless and poor individuals are less likely to be able to appear in court.  Also, because there is no right to counsel for civil infractions, poor people who appear in court will not have a lawyer appointed to represent them to challenge the factual basis of the citation.

If the individual does not appear or pay the fine, he or she is subject to a criminal charge of failure-to-appear.  This is a human rights concern because vulnerable populations – including those experiencing homelessness, mental health needs, chemical dependency, or low-incomes – are disproportionately more likely not to appear in court or pay the fine and thus, are more likely to find themselves facing a failure-to-respond charge, which is a criminal misdemeanor.

A criminal record poses barriers for obtaining employment, housing, and access to other services, which will likely have disparate racial impacts.

The list of human rights concerns goes on and on.  But the city council is ignoring them.

Burgess has also pointed to Tacoma as a successful model of such an initiative- that isn’t exactly true though.

Burgess routinely compares his law to Tacoma’s, and says they have virtually eliminated panhandling without ever writing a single ticket. This is offered as evidence that the desperately poor won’t really be issued the $50 citations that the law creates, or be jailed when those tickets are ignored. As it turns out, cops in Tacoma do write tickets, and while less visible in commercial areas, poor people still panhandle.

So the anecdotal evidence is also shifty, but council is ignoring that too, instead aligning themselves behind Burgess’ political aspirations and special interest relationships.

Late last week it was confirmed the council has the voted needed to pass the measure.

This is where McGinn has stepped in.

He initially said he would veto the measure if the council vote was 5 to 4.  However on Sunday he said that even if council has the six votes to reverse a veto- he’ll go ahead with it anyway, forcing them to take a second vote.

The Mayor has said he doesn’t think the anti-aggressive panhandling measure is good legislation, and that he wants to make his position clear.  He also said that he hopes taking this action will give time for some council members to change their minds and vote against it.

What that really means is McGinn is giving the people of Seattle more time to put pressure on the council to act one way or another.  It’s a smart move on the Mayor’s part- one he desperatly needs after 4 months of blunders of public blunders.

Personally, I am against the proposed measure.  While many characterize it as an opportunity to enforce civility, I see it as an opportunity to criminalize people because they aren’t a part of the status quo, and their mere presence leaves those who are the status quo uncomfortable.

I think it is absolutely shameful that Seattle lacks the compassion, foresight or moral compass to support the needs of the homeless with effective policy or law.  If we don’t want them to be in the position to have to ask strangers for help, then perhaps we as a community should start providing adequately for their needs.

Two thumbs up to the mayor for standing on the right side of the issue.  Now, it’s up to you. Should we criminalize homelessness or work to finally bring authentic solutions into fruition?

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Dawn permalink
    April 19, 2010 11:57 pm

    Councilmember remarks that panhandlers would have a negative impact on tourists. This need to show Seattle as a one dimension population extends beyond the presence of panhandlers. Seattle City Council likewise does not promote tourism to communities to the South; read Rainier Valley with beautiful views of Mt. Rainier while walking the Seward Park Look, Kobota Gardens, or to experience the color of the village of 98118 fondly known as Rainier Valley.

  2. ed b permalink
    April 24, 2010 3:50 pm

    Good commentary

    From what you hear for the city councel you would think that downtown was running rampant with rogue panhandlers! Even on the liberal NPR station they
    have one of there friday pundents just raving how uncomfortable she is with panhandlers and how this law is the silver bullet for downtown Seattle’s ailments.
    I wish you could address the clear class issue that is being ignored in this situation.


  3. April 25, 2010 11:28 pm

    Through my eyes, “class” specifically is not the issue- the status quo and their perception of people different than them is what the issue is, and it really wouldn’t matter if it was the affluent against the poor, the White against the Black, the male against the female, etc. I addressed the fact that they are being targeted specifically because they are homeless- which denotes financially “poor” or “low class”. I think what the city and many of its citizens are trying to do is sick. SICK. And they couldn’t see it if it slapped them in the face.

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