Out of the Panhandle, Into the Fire

Boise attorneys modeled panhandling ordinance on California law with questionable outcomes


If legal staff at City Hall is to be believed, the city of Boise has a panhandling problem. But they would have been hard-pressed to prove it on Saturday, June 1. As residents enjoyed a near-perfect 75 degrees--and with both public markets going full tilt--thousands of pedestrians filled city streets and stores. With so many potential panhandling targets, Boise Weekly made a point of visiting three high-profile locations that have served as locales for panhandlers: the corner of 15th and Front streets (under the I-184 connector), outside the Albertsons store at 17th and State streets, and outside the Winco store on Front Street. Yet, not one panhandler was there at 1 p.m. We returned three hours later to the same locations: zero. Not one cardboard sign. Not one beggar.

That's not to say that somewhere, someone wasn't asking for a handout. And no one at City Hall envisions a Boise where homeless never plead for help.

But a trio of newly proposed ordinances want to discourage panhandling, if not wipe the practice from city streets.

"These ordinances come in response from Boise business owners, residents and motorists who are reporting to us that they have experienced increased harassing or panhandling," Boise Police Chief Mike Masterson told City Council members May 21. "These are issues that are continuing to have a negative impact on the city's use of public space."

Masterson sat alongside Assistant Boise City Attorney Ralph Blount as they formally unveiled what they called their first drafts of three proposals: The Aggressive Solicitation Ordinance, which would penalize solicitation for money on a roadway or while blocking pedestrians' right-of-way; The Public Placement Ordinance, which would require a permit for erecting a tent or placing tables or chairs on public property; and, perhaps the most controversial of the three, The Civil Sidewalks Ordinance, which would prohibit sitting on publicly owned infrastructures such as planters or trashcans, or lying on the pavement within 10 feet of a building entrance or exit.

The Civil Sidewalks Ordinance has an interesting origin, copied from cities that have little--if anything--in common with Boise.

"This particular ordinance is adopted after similar ordinances in Santa Cruz [N.M.] and San Francisco," Blount told council members during the May 21 workshop session.

But what Blount didn't tell city leaders was that the San Francisco ordinance--approved by voters and not a city council--has since come under considerable scrutiny.

In fact, Boise Weekly has learned that an independent review conducted in March 2012 by the nonpartisan, nonprofit City Hall Fellows found the majority of key San Francisco merchants polled said the ordinance had "not been effective at abating aggressive panhandling, soliciting or loitering in the proximity of their businesses." Additionally, at the busiest of San Francisco's police stations, 90 percent of ordinance citations were issued to repeat violators of the law and more than half were issued to just four individuals who were chronically homeless--while struggling with significant health conditions. Furthermore, 58 percent of merchants said that the number of individuals sitting in front of their businesses has stayed the same or increased since the law was enacted.

"Why are these ordinances even being considered in Boise?" asked Ritchie Eppink, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho. "The city of Boise already has an aggressive panhandling ordinance."

Eppink was referring to Title 6, Chapter 1, Section 7 of the existing Boise City Code, making it a misdemeanor to "beg in a public place with the intent to intimidate another into giving money or goods" or to "obstruct pedestrians or vehicular traffic in a public place."

Additionally, Title 6, Chapter 1, Section 9 of the Code makes it a misdemeanor for "tumultuous or offensive conduct," better known as disturbing the peace.

"If the mayor, City Council and the chief of police are concerned about people harassing other people on the streets of Boise, the existing mechanisms should be enough," said Eppink.

When the first drafts of the ordinances were unveiled May 21, Council members Lauren McLean and TJ Thomson had the most questions for Blount and Masterson. (Council members Elaine Clegg and David Eberle were absent from the workshop session.)

"The city of Boise takes the issue of homelessness very seriously; we've probably taken more action than any other city in Idaho," Thomson told BW. "That said, I have some questions. For example, I want City Hall and other public areas to be a place where people can freely congregate."

Thomson said his first impressions of the proposed ordinances were mostly positive, but wasn't a fan of "listing out where you can't sit or lie down."

"Let me put it this way: You shouldn't need a color-coded map to the city that tells you where you can sit and read a book or lie down and look up at the sky," said Thomson. "And I want to see street performers protected. I love street performers and believe they really add to the city's vibe."

Through the better part of the hourlong May 21 workshop, Bieter regularly reached for his gavel to curb public discourse on the issue.

"Sir, I'm going to have to ask you to leave," Bieter told one citizen who interrupted the meeting with his displeasure. The man was escorted out by two Boise police officers.

"We're not going to get anywhere if you disrupt the meeting," Bieter told another opponent--a woman who was also escorted out by police.

"Folks, we're going to have a full hearing on this," said Bieter. "You'll get an opportunity to testify, but we're not going to get anywhere if you disrupt this meeting."

But Eppink is hoping that the anti-panhandling proposals won't even get as far as a public hearing.

"We're going to try to educate the public, the council, the mayor's office and the police department about what the result of these laws actually is versus what they think it will be," said Eppink. "After all of the questions from council and further consideration, we're hoping this won't even turn up on a council agenda again."

But Eppink is also a realist.

"If it does resurface, I can guarantee you that the ACLU will be there," he said. "The ACLU has fought ordinances like this all over the country, and until we're shown that there are some reasons why these ordinances are needed and that they would actually address real problems, we're prepared to fight."

Eppink said the city was on a path to spend money on a legal fight and enforcement when its funds could be spent better elsewhere.

"We're not aware of a problem with homeless people in Boise. We're aware that there's a problem with housing opportunity in Boise," he said. "The city of Boise hasn't, that I'm aware of, been making any significant effort to improve the amount of crisis housing, transitional housing or even affordable housing. Now, that's what we have a problem with."