Inspired by a mother whose son is battling drug addiction, downtown business officials will ask the Bakersfield City Council on Wednesday to get tough on panhandlers.
Members of two business associations said people asking for money have increasingly become a problem for property owners and shoppers, but northeast Bakersfield resident Lizz Rodriguez's pieces in The Californian last month gave them a new perspective on the issue.
"My son has a warm bed and a warm dinner waiting for him at home," Rodriguez wrote, first in a letter to the editor, then in a longer opinion piece published by The Californian. "He lives for his next fix. And he gets the money from panhandling."
"I am 100 percent for being generous and kind," Rodriguez later said in an interview. "But as a society, we have to look at, are we enabling these people, because I think we are."
"That kind of gave us our angle on this and what we're considering," said Bob Bell, chairman of the Downtown Bakersfield Development Corp. and co-owner of The Village at Towne Centre, 1201 24th St.
He called the city's panhandlers organized and "terribly aggressive" toward shoppers, and said that "What we want to do is build an honorable ordinance that will really help the ones that need our help."
Jeff Hayward, chairman of the Downtown Business Association, said he will speak to the council and called what Rodriguez wrote "compelling."
"I'm going to go on public record to ask them to investigate the possibility of a no-panhandling ordinance similar to the city of Merced or Visalia or other neighboring communities," Hayward said.
Visalia's code enforcement supervisor said the city's existing ordinance banned "aggressive solicitation" near banks and ATMs. A new change approved last month also outlaws panhandling in parking lots.
Bakersfield has an ordinance prohibiting loitering "under circumstances manifesting the purpose of engaging in drug-related activity" -- but no anti-panhandling ordinance, according to City Attorney Ginny Gennaro.
Gennaro said she believes ordinances that prohibit aggressive panhandling, like the one in Visalia, have withstood legal challenges, but that no one-size ban will fit all cities.
"It really is a complex discussion relative to the First Amendment," Gennaro said, noting that, for example, our freedom of speech protection under the Constitution generally protects our right to stand on the corner with a sign asking for money. "We'll be getting a variety of ordinances that have been passed by a variety of cities, but it is an area that is full of legal mines and traps."
Ward 2 Councilman Terry Maxwell also cited the Constitution.
"The last thing we need to do is get thrown into court because somebody feels we've violated their First Amendment rights," Maxwell said. "I'm not sure how to solve it, but I'm looking forward to hearing from the DBA. I think we need to get some people in a room and look at it."
Police Chief Greg Williamson said his officers try to enforce the law while working to address non-criminal issues.
"I tell people all the time, being homeless isn't criminal. It's a social issue that we as a community should address together," Williamson said. "I don't think throwing individuals like that into jail does anybody any good."
But Jas Dhaliwal, who owns Lucky Seven Food Store next door to the downtown Golden Empire Transit center, disagreed.
"I think so, if they would make it (an ordinance) and arrest them, or give them a ticket, maybe it will help," said Dhaliwal, whose store is on the west side of Chester Avenue between 21st and 22nd streets. "I just don't know what to do any more. Any customer comes in here, 'Do you have 25 cents, do you have a dollar?'"
Several people who discussed the issue near the GET bus station disagreed.
Asked if he does, in fact, panhandle, Aron Meeker said: "Yes, and maybe they should allow us to have a non-aggressive panhandling ordinance. As long as you're not aggressively panhandling somebody, what harm are you doing standing there?"
Interviewed as she came out of Lucky Seven Food Store, Mona Bright said that sometimes she does ask people for money, but it's never been a problem.
"Well, yeah, but it's cool. People are nice out there," said Bright, who was dubious that a panhandling ordinance would effectively target people who abuse others' kindness, saying, "I don't think it would solve anything."