Homeless advocates will probe the extent and effects of downtown panhandling with a series of surveys during the next six months, after an outreach group approved the idea Tuesday.
The unanimous verbal vote by the Kern County Homeless Collaborative's steering committee authorized volunteers to start questioning panhandlers and downtown business owners.
Its vote comes as the Bakersfield City Council prepares to give first reading March 5 to an ordinance targeting "Panhandling/Soliciting, " making it illegal to "solicit in an aggressive manner in any public place."
If given a second reading and approved March 19, the city's panhandling ordinance could become law by the end of March -- months before volunteers finish their surveys.
But Dr. Gerald Cantu, whose company, Stewards Inc., will be among those supplying volunteers to do the surveys, said he believes they will be part of a long-term approach to reducing panhandling by understanding who does it and why.
Stewards Inc., is a nonprofit that manages social security benefits for the mentally disabled or elderly.
Cantu said differentiating between panhandlers and the homeless will be key.
"We don't have hard data for that. There's going to be some panhandlers among the homeless, but not all homeless are panhandlers and not all panhandlers are homeless," said Cantu, who thinks the homeless have become more visible in downtown as law enforcement has ordered them out of Kern River encampments.
Surveying could begin as soon as this week, with a pre-survey of downtown business owners and a census of downtown panhandlers -- but it will continue during the next six months with a survey for homeless downtown, and a follow-up survey for downtown business owners.
Questions from the census and the follow-up survey for business owners have not yet been completed.
Available questions for downtown business owners examine how often panhandlers solicit donations at their business, and whether they "appear to be homeless or 'regulars?' "
Cantu said he realizes the latter question is subjective, but hopes it would help survey takers understand business owners' states of mind.
Questions for downtown's homeless ask where they slept last night, how long and how many different times they have been homeless, and how many times they've been hospitalized during the past six months.
Cantu said he believes this survey will complement the collaborative's yearly Point-in-Time Count of Kern County homeless, and show what resources they need.
"We're supportive of the survey. Our concern is that we don't want to see our homeless people ... viewed as criminals because they're homeless," said Jim Wheeler, chairman of the steering committee.
Bakersfield Downtown Business Association President Cathy Butler said she's supportive of the surveys, but that downtown merchants need the ordinance passed.