Last Friday night, Santa Claus rode into the Arcata Plaza in a firetruck and whipped the throng of squealing tots -- "Santa! Santa!" -- and their parents into a swirling frenzy as the truck slowly promenaded twice around the glittering square behind a marching band slinging brassy Christmas jingles. In the center of the storm several young panhandlers joined the crowd by the McKinley statue, absently clutching their forgotten cardboard signs -- "Just want smokes," said one -- at their sides.
In front of bar row, the scraggly pack of lurching, cackling roughs and their dogs who usually commandeered the sidewalk all day and all night was obscured by the Christmas revelery. On the other side of the plaza, a young woman with a tattooed forehead and dressed in hip girl-rebel attire stood in front of Libation sipping from a small cup. As people walked by her, she quietly asked, "Spare some change?" But she didn't persist if someone said no.
On a couple of dark streets spurring away from the center of the hubbub, scruffy, apparently homeless people sat alongside frozen curbs, huddled together for warmth and chatting, their breath puffing white around them. It was supposed to get down near freezing that night, and even colder over the next few days. When someone walked by, one of them said hello, but that was all.
Back in the glittering plaza, the frenzy hadn't let up. Aside from the subdued pockets of obvious misery in the city, it was one of those moments when the incredibly festive, joyous side of Arcata took over, when everyone flocked to the plaza and celebrated and everything was all warm wishes and gentle cheer, all sparkle and laughter.
A visitor might not have guessed that, a couple of days before, residents and city councilmembers had sat late into the night debating the merits of a proposed anti-panhandling ordinance aimed at cleaning up these mean streets.
In October, the Arcata City Council had asked its staff to draft a panhandling ordinance. City staff, the police and council members had been plagued, in letters, phone calls and in meetings, with complaints from residents and business owners. Panhandlers were lurking by ATMs. They were harassing bank employees. They were intimidating people trying to use the footbridge over Highway 101 at 17th Street. They were scaring shoppers from coming to the Arcata Plaza and the Uniontown and Valley West shopping centers. They were distracting motorists with their cardboard signs. They were getting right in people's faces, sometimes, following them around, knocking on car windows, demanding money and then cussing out folks who refused to cough up.
Last Wednesday, City Attorney Nancy Diamond presented the first draft of proposed Ordinance No. 1399: "An ordinance of the city council of the city of Arcata prohibiting panhandling." It would, if eventually passed, fall within Chapter 2 ("Other Violations") of Title IV ("Public welfare, morals and conduct") of the Arcata Municipal Code.
The draft ordinance defines panhandling as "asking for money or objects of value, with the intention that the money or object be transferred at that time, and at that place," and as "using the spoken, written, or printed word, bodily gestures, signs, or other means with the purpose of obtaining an immediate donation of money or others thing of value." Its prohibitions fall into two basic categories: aggressive panhandling, in which an intimidating manner is used "before, during or after panhandling"; and site-specific panhandling whether aggressive or not, including within a certain radius of intersections, in parking lots, in public transportation vehicles and on footbridges, and within 20 feet of ATMs or any check-cashing business, supermarket or retail store.
The document is patterned after anti-panhandling ordinances in other California cities, such as Ukiah and Los Angeles. But the wording and specifics of Arcata's final ordinance could end up looking substantially different from the draft, judging by comments and questions by council members and the public at Wednesday's meeting.
Councilmember Michael Winkler, for instance, said he wanted bus stops to be added to the places off limits to panhandling. Councilmember Shane Brinton wanted much of the language clarified, including "before, during and after panhandling." Councilmember Susan Ornelas said "aggressive panhandling" needed to be better defined. Councilmember Alex Stillman agreed. And several wondered if the section banning panhandling near an intersection, besides dealing with the cardboard-sign beggars, might have the unintended effect of putting the kibosh on such things as high school kids waving signs for car-wash fundraisers or the Round Table Pizza guy waggling his lunch special sign (although that last example really is just advertising, they concluded). And there were more issues.
During the public comment period, a 38-year resident of Arcata said she recently stopped going to the plaza because of the panhandlers. A nattily dressed young man who lives in Northtown complained that he has been heckled for money and called names on his daily foot commute to work. And white-haired Lew Litzky, looking stern, said that in the nine years he's lived in Arcata the panhandling has gotten "worse and worse." It wasn't about homelessness, he said, but about respect.
"I think Arcata has got a name in the traveler community of being a soft touch," he said.
But several woolly local guys sitting in the back of the room, their backpacks propped behind them, were outraged by the ordinance.
"It's reprehensible," said one of them. "Who are you, what are you and how do you sleep at night?"
Another one, houseless gadfly Tad Robinson, said the council was "just being mean." He told the story of how once, at the recycling center, his dog was bit by two pit bulls. He had no money to take his dog to the vet. "So I ended up flying a sign," he said. And in some cases, he added, "it's just a religious quest to go beg on the street."
Greg Allen, of the American Civil Liberties Union Redwood Chapter, warned of constitutional challenges. "It has been consistently the position of the ACLU that begging ... is protected speech under the American Constitution," he said.
City Attorney Diamond, however, said that the courts have ruled that a panhandling ordinance is constitutional as long as it is "content neutral" and "narrowly tailored to serve legitimate governmental interests, and leaves open ample channels of alternate communication." In this case, the ordinance would be intended, as the draft states, "to protect citizens from fear and intimidation accompanying certain kinds of solicitation that have become an unwelcome and overwhelming presence in the City...."
John Shelter, executive director of the North Coast Resource Center (formerly Arcata Endeavor), said that he's against aggressive panhandling, too. But he feared that the ordinance, and the term "panhandling," unfairly targets the merely poor and homeless.
"Let's try a non-aggressive approach," he said.
Council member Mark Wheetley told the audience that he didn't take the ordinance lightly. "This is not an anti-homeless issue," he said. "It's an anti-aggressive panhandling issue."
The city council decided to take more time to fine-tune the ordinance, and voted to bring back another draft for a hearing in a month or so.
But what, exactly, is the situation on the street? When there isn't a festival going on?
Out in Valley West -- one of the problem areas identified by city staff -- the panhandler scene has slowed down, said Espresso 101 barista Meadow Gorman one day last week. A steady stream of lunch-time coffee drinkers trickled up to her drive-through and walk-up windows, and from somewhere in the shopping center came the muted strains of a violin.
"There's definitely more travelers around in the summer," Gorman said. She saw a lot of young people, and even some families who parked their campers and buses in a spot behind the shopping center. But they, and even some of what she calls "the core, truly homeless" regulars, tended to leave in the winter; she thought some went to Eureka.
But a few were still around, including Big Al -- who alternates between Valley West and Northtown. Gorman leaned out her window to look across the road toward the Chevron station. "Yep, Big Al's there on his corner."
She said the homeless panhandlers she encountered weren't aggressive, and they never bothered her shop. She'd even on occasion given one a cup of coffee. "That person is somebody's son, somebody's daughter, somebody's dad, somebody's mom," she said. Gorman, 31, said she was homeless once, for six months in her hometown of Seattle when she was 19. But she added that she has no patience for people who act entitled.
"I once watched a kid get out of his brand-new car, pull a sign out and go stand on a corner," she said. "I actually said something to that guy. And he had one of those kitschy signs with some smart-ass comment on it: 'I know I'm a piece of crap, I need some money.' He yelled at me that just because he had a new car didn't mean he didn't need money."
Over on a pebbled corner of one of the entrances to the shopping center -- an area that would be off-limits to any kind of panhandling under the ordinance -- John O'Connor and his traveling companion had parked their backpacks and propped up their cardboard signs. O'Connor's said, in neat block print, "Homeless Veteran Please Help God-Bless. No Drugs. No Booze." His friend's said, "Disabled Anything Helps."
O'Connor looked like a tidy cat. His beard was trim, his clothes, shoes and knit cap looked sensible, of good quality and clean, and his orange backpack and green tarp were sharply assembled. There was a plastic "Hard Times" coffee mug clipped to his pack. He said they'd come over the mountains from Weaverville, where the cops had run them off for flying signs. Before that they'd been in Red Bluff -- that's where, about eight months ago, O'Connor first penned a sign and stood on the side of the road to beg. That one said, "Will work."
"I thought, people are going to look at me and say, 'What a lowlife,'" he said.
The 57-year-old described a cascade of trouble leading up to that moment. Some years back, he said, he accidentally killed a 63-year-old woman in a car wreck in Kansas. He spent time in jail. He lost his driver's license. He moved to Yuma, Ariz., some time later and was staying at a homeless shelter there when "a fly-by-night paver" came along and hired him to help with some paving jobs. That guy, however, got busted by the IRS for operating without a license. O'Connor lost his job. And he's been drifting now for eight months.
"In Red Bluff they'd flip us off," he said of passersby. "And they'd yell, 'Go get a job!' And I'd say, 'Tell me where I can get one and I will.'"
O'Connor still has family in Roseville, where he grew up. "But they don't care about me," he said. "They're idiots. I called them up to see if I could stay there, and they said, 'No, no, no.' But they're aged, you know, so I sort of understand."
These days, he just thinks about getting up to Walla Walla, Wash. He's planning to hitch a ride there in a couple of weeks. "There's a mission there, and they said they'd help me get a job," he said.
A car slowed down and stopped beside O'Connor and his friend, the window lowered, and the young guy at the wheel asked, "You guys want a cigarette or something?"
"No," said O'Connor.
"A bud?" asked the driver.
"No!" said O'Connor firmly. "I don't want no bud. I don't smoke, no drugs."
The guy drove off.
Across the parking lot in the concrete walkway between Ray's and the Oriental Buffet -- but perhaps not the required 20 feet away from the businesses as the ordinance would require -- 19-year-old Alessa Bakkum sawed liltingly through her Celtic repertoire. A small pile of greenbacks lay in the open violin case in front of her. Next to her were some personal belongings, including her boyfriend's backpack with some handlettered cardboard signs stuffed into it. Several yards away, closer to the restaurant entrance, a desolate-looking grubby man slumped against the building, his legs crossed and his head hanging low. A black dog slept at his feet. People walked past, ignoring him.
Bakkum finished a tune, "The Curvy Road to Corinth," and an older man hurried up and dropped some cash into the violin case saying, "I've always loved the violin," and hurried away.
With her bright red wool coat, blue scarf, purple plaid slippers and pulled-back brown hair, Bakkum didn't look like the typical Arcata traveler. She said she was from Minnesota, and with her parents' blessing she'd been traveling for the past six months from festival to festival to absorb new music and adventures, busking for motel-room money, dumpster-diving when she had to for food and accepting free rides when she could. She'd fallen for a guy on the Arcata Plaza and had been here for three months now, playing her music on the streets.
She'd heard about the panhandler ordinance. She said she didn't appreciate aggressive panhandlers either. But she and her "boy" weren't like that. And people liked her music.
"It's different," she said. "I'm not just holding a sign. And I've worked really hard to play this well. For eight years. And not just violin. I also play piano and guitar and I'm a classically trained vocalist."
She said she was going home for the holidays. But then she was coming back to Arcata to apply for jobs and get an apartment.
Inside Ray's Food Place, store manager Mark Jones sat in his office and explained that he's not against people sitting outside playing their music, as long as they didn't bother his customers or beg or hold signs. He was sick of people hitting his customers up for change -- and sometimes hitting his employees.
"Our customer base has dropped way down at night," he said. "Our main business time should be between 5 and 7 p.m., but now it drops off at 4 p.m. -- now that it's winter and it's dark -- and we're not having the business we had years ago. There's a certain customer base that doesn't feel safe coming here now. I had a gal courtesy clerk, a few years ago, who got punched in the face by a transient. I had [another employee] who went out to talk to a person about panhandling and he spat in her face."
He's had to call the police numerous times.
If the anti-panhandling ordinance goes through, there'll be yet more reasons to call the police. And some people, like John Shelter of the North Coast Resource Center, think that won't solve the core problem.
Friday afternoon, the Arcata Service Center was a-bustle. Homeless volunteers and staff were putting together food boxes for low-income housed people, and clients were coming in to pick them up. A couple of homeless people sat in the waiting area. One, a young man with blond dreadlocks, an intense imagination and the street name of Wrath, was waiting to help put together food boxes. The other, 59-year-old legally blind Rosey McDonald, was waiting to see if she was going to get help moving into an apartment. Her pop-eyed little service dog, Betty Boop, dozed on her lap.
McDonald said she'd done some begging when she moved to Arcata two years ago. "I was living in my Toyota the first five months -- my son drove me here -- and I would walk up to people and tell them I needed gas for my Toyota. I was too embarrassed to hold a sign. The police made me keep moving my Toyota, and that used up gas."
Eventually, she said, she qualified as a resident here and sought services, and here she was.
"I hate spangers," said Wrath, listening. "The spangers, they're putting their issues off on other people, and then I get blamed. And I don't do that. I don't spange. If I need money, I pick up cans. And I've had times when I needed money and I found money on the ground."
In his office in the back of the service center, Shelter explained that he, too, has no patience for aggressive panhandlers, nor for the "professional panhandlers" -- the long-term guys. He doesn't care for the entitlement folks: the people flying the cutesy signs, the travelers making their way up and down the "Corridor of Fun" -- Highway 101 -- and the "houseless" folks who set up a nightly protest camp all last month on the parking lot at Eureka City Hall (and which city police raided Sunday night).
But Shelter worries that a panhandling ordinance will snag a lot of truly needy people.
"My biggest problem is, our county refuses to build shelters for the homeless," he said.
A point-in-time survey on January 27 of this year, in which counters fanned out across the county and interviewed as many homeless people they could find in a single day, found 1,497 homeless adults and 416 homeless children. Arcata alone had 219 adults and 44 kids. Eureka had 723 adults and 262 children. And the rest were distributed amongst the county's other towns.
Meanwhile, the only shelters are an 11-bed night shelter in Arcata, the Eureka Rescue Mission ("where they cram them in," Shelter said), plus some emergency winter accomodations at the Serenity Inn, churches and other places, and some safe-and-sober homes in Eureka. Most people camp in the marshes and woods, or sleep in cars or on friend's couches and occasionally in motels.
Shelter said if he had more support from the city of Arcata -- with whom he just temporarily settled a nasty battle over the location of the services center -- he'd have his homeless work crews doing some outreach to the panhandling homeless. The crews are already out and about, he said, setting up and taking down events on the plaza and cleaning up trash for the city.
"They would talk to them, you know, like peer counseling," said Shelter. "And they would bring them down here to feed them and get help and we'd teach them about respect. So, instead of police issuing them a citation, we'd be asking them, 'Do you need anything?'"
Shelter said his programs already have pulled a number of homeless people -- as long as they're willing to work and educate themselves -- off the streets. And some of them already are going out into the community to work with other homeless people. For instance, in the New Directions program, volunteers and staff venture three times a week into Palco Marsh in Eureka to talk one-on-one with illegal campers and train them to respect the land and clean up their camps. So how about extending that idea to Arcata's panhandlers?
"Why not use us, the agency intended to do this?" he asked.