When the city's anti-panhandling law takes effect Friday, Bakersfield police will take a back seat to homeless advocates and downtown merchants, who are gearing up to warn the public against panhandling.
The rule in question is city ordinance No. 4768, approved April 16 by the Bakersfield City Council.
It makes "aggressive solicitation" a misdemeanor or an infraction, and bans all soliciting near banks, credit unions and ATMs, in parking lots and structures after dark, and on medians and public transit.
City staff recommended the ordinance as a legally defensible way to help downtown business owners, who have said panhandlers are driving away their customers.
In comparison with life-or-death crimes, however, aggressive panhandling will be a low priority call for Bakersfield Police Department officers, who must observe a violation before writing tickets or unholstering handcuffs.
"We're not doing any separate enforcement action, we're not putting a group of officers out on overtime to enforce this," said BPD Sgt. Joe Grubbs, the department spokesman. "If we get a call, we're going to go and we're going to respond to that call and address it as needed, and if somebody is panhandling by definition of the ordinance, then we would take the appropriate action."
At its meeting Wednesday, the Kern County Homeless Collaborative's downtown homeless task force committee will consider approving a flier cautioning the homeless not to run afoul of the new addition to the city's municipal code.
The draft flier cautions against using words, hand motions or a sign to ask for money, food or any item, or touching, making contact with or following anyone.
"You could be arrested -- your housing could be at risk," the flier reads. "It could be seen as 'illegal' if you do any of these -- even accidentally ... ."
Bob Bell, chairman of the Downtown Bakersfield Development Corp., said he thinks the flier sends the wrong message.
"The flier really has to do with educating the homeless on how to not get arrested," said Bell, who'd like it to include information on how to access social services.
Jim Wheeler, chairman of the steering committee for the Kern County Homeless Collaborative, said the flier is not intended to help the homeless skirt the law.
"We're not supporting people who are panhandling, but we're trying to make sure the people whom we help are not going to get caught up in this situation where they're given citations and it prevents them from getting into (federally-funded) housing," Wheeler said.
If approved Wednesday, the flier would be distributed by homeless advocates.
They're not the only ones with a message.
The Downtown Business Association is creating a poster for store owners to display informing visitors about the new law and alternatives to giving to panhandlers.
"We would like to have the (municipal) code on there as well as a message to the general public to, if they give, give their money where it's truly going to make a difference," said Downtown Business Association Chairman Kevin Bartl. "A dollar can go a lot further in the hands of one of your capable social service agencies."