A new survey shows downtown merchants believe panhandlers are hurting their businesses, but homeless advocates will ask the Bakersfield City Council Wednesday to delay implementing a new draft ordinance criminalizing aggressive panhandling.
The ordinance would make "aggressive solicitation" a misdemeanor or an infraction, and ban all soliciting near banks, credit unions and ATMs, in parking lots and structures after dark, and on medians and public transit.
It will have its first reading at Wednesday's city council meeting, and could return for a second reading and council approval April 16.
Members of the Kern County Homeless Collaborative have begun reaching out to homeless people in central Bakersfield, which had 76 unsheltered homeless in late January during a yearly Point-in-Time Count -- the highest concentration in Kern County.
"The collaborative is pivoting to a focus on the downtown area. That's why we're going to ask for a delay in the implementation of the ordinance, so that we can continue forward with this initiative and really attack the problem of homelessness before law enforcement is brought to bear," said Dr. Gerald Cantu, whose company, Stewards Inc., was among those supplying volunteers to do the survey.
The collaborative's Steering Committee Chairman Jim Wheeler said the group is not opposed to the ordinance's passage but wants its enforcement delayed until Jan. 1, 2015 or for at least six months -- long enough to aid downtown's homeless.
"We know that definitely some of the people who are panhandle are homeless, but not all," Wheeler said. "We don't want them to be punished for trying to survive on the street."
Surveyors in February and March were able to poll 165 of 226 businesses in an area roughly bounded by F, Q and 24th streets and Truxtun Avenue.
Of those 165, 44 percent said they were very concerned about panhandling, and 60 percent described "most" solicitors in downtown as homeless.
Sixty percent of businesses surveyed said panhandlers had visited in the past two weeks, and 45 percent said panhandlers kept their customers away.
City Attorney Ginny Gennaro said studies have shown homeless people generally are not aggressive panhandlers -- and credited Bakersfield police officers with being able to tell the difference.
"As much as there is a desire and a need to provide resources for the homeless, there is a desire and a need to provide tools for our business owners that they need to be successful," Gennaro said, characterizing the proposed ordinance as "in no way meant to be viewed as incompassionate to the homeless."
Downtown Business Association Chairman Kevin Bartl said his group would not be opposed to a "slight delay" -- so long as the ordinance passes.
"We want to team up with the collaborative as far as an intense marketing effort after the ordinance is passed. We want people to keep giving for the right reasons," Bartl said. "You're not helping anybody by giving to a panhandler."
Ward 2 Councilman Terry Maxwell, who represents downtown, said the ordinance should be enforced if it is passed.
"Otherwise why do it?" Maxwell asked. "This is just a first step. For all we know, by eliminating aggressive panhandling maybe more people will reach out to Jim (Wheeler) for their services."