Our opinion: Panhandling not an easy problem to solve
Transportation officials probably hate the cliche, "You can't get there from here."
But some community problems might actually have no good, workable solutions. And panhandling on Oregon streets and highway ramps is one of them.
Tigard residents have complained for years about panhandlers with cardboard signs, who stand on major streets, or on- and off-ramps, asking for handouts. The Tigard City Council talked about the issue at a workshop earlier this month, seeking solutions.
For this one, solutions may be thin on the vine. And the few under consideration range from tepid to illogical.
Banning panhandling might be popular, but the city likely can't get there from here.
First, a primer on the problem: Judges have interpreted Article 1, Section 8 of the Oregon Constitution to say that panhandling is a free speech issue. Cities from Portland to Medford have discovered that efforts to stop panhandling have failed to pass muster with the courts.
So, what can be done?
One option is for city police to issue exclusion warnings, telling panhandlers they can't stay at the tops of off- and on-ramps.
A second option is informational: The city could set up signs or billboards or plaques asking drivers not to give to panhandlers. The Portland Business Alliance did something similar in downtown Portland. That campaign was perceived by some as heavy-handed — the billboards seemed to link the Good Samaritan act of helping out a person in trouble with feeding the drug and alcohol dependency of panhandlers.
A third and truly silly idea is to give tickets to drivers who hand things to panhandlers.
Mayor John L. Cook has wisely given that notion a test drive, mentioning it to some Tigard residents. And he said the response has been "unanimously negative."
No wonder. Imagine handing a water bottle or a power bar to a panhandler, then having a police officer pull you over and give you a ticket. Or even a warning. The concept is dopey on the face of it.
The City of Springfield, Ore., has done so for about the past year. But not all ideas should be replicated.
In light of the limited options, we have to ask: Is panhandling on streets and highways a problem worth the city's time and effort? Do the panhandlers cause a problem? Traffic is bad on many of our major thoroughfares, to be sure, but nobody thinks the panhandlers are the sole cause of that.
The City of Albuquerque took a look at panhandling and came up with a different solution: Offer the panhandlers a job. According to the staff of Mayor Richard J. Berry, the program began in 2015 when the city posted signs at intersections giving panhandlers information about food and shelter programs. The signs also offer drivers information on how to donate through a website to programs that benefit the homeless. To quote Mayor Berry's website, "For example, a driver could hand $5 out the window to a panhandler and help them purchase one meal — or they could donate $5 to Roadrunner Food Bank and feed 20 people."
Albuquerque also began offering day jobs to panhandlers. To date, the city has provided more than 2,700 day jobs doing things like litter patrol. Obviously, with a population of almost 560,000, Albuquerque has the funds and wherewithal to introduce programs that Tigard, at less than one tenth that size, can't match.
But would a version of Albuquerque's "There's a Better Way" program work for, say, Washington County, or a coalition of cities in the county? We're not sure.
But we'd applaud any effort to find out.
The obvious answer to panhandling is untenable: Find them a job and a home. Washington County is experiencing record-low 3 percent unemployment — there are fewer jobs going wanting than the region has seen in decades. And the county has an estimated shortfall of 14,000 units of "affordable" housing; defined as housing that costs no more than 30 percent of household income.
Simple answers will be tough to come by, although the worst of a bad lot is the nutty notion of fining drivers for being good Samaritans.
If this is a problem in need of a solution, then the city would be well served by being creative. Maybe not as creative as Albuquerque. But then again, maybe just that creative.
There may, yet, be a way to get there from here.