Teen leading charge in push to restrict panhandling
It's 5 p.m. at the intersection of Wilsonville and Boone's Ferry roads. Traffic leading to and from Interstate 5 is backed up for a quarter mile in each direction. Separating traffic is a four-foot wide block of concrete with a few shrubs and trees filling in here and there.
Located on this median, a 20-something year old man with a backpack and small coffee can holds a sign reading "Need bus fare, anything helps."
It's a scene that's grown common in Wilsonville, specifically at this very location. On social media, community members rant, rave and debate over what seems to be a steady increase in panhandler activity, although, nobody can quantify this phenomenon for sure.
It is this issue, and the squabbles on Facebook, which caught the attention of Jake Gibson, a recent graduate of Wilsonville High School and soon-to-be University of Oregon student.
Gibson, along with Kent Wright of Wilsonville, decided to step out from behind their keyboards to address the growing concern over panhandling in Wilsonville earlier this month when they presented to the Wilsonville City Council.
"It's about safety and distracted driving," Gibson says, "When you have stop-n-go traffic, a panhandler's main function is to retrieve money, so you have people walking out in the street, and if the light turns green you have more backed up traffic. Tempers start to flare and that's when situations with collisions are created."
Gibson says he's personally witnessed several cases where panhandling in Wilsonville has caused traffic to back up because of motorists who slow down or stop to hand out food or money at an intersection. With the increased chatter in the community over this issue, he saw it as an opportunity to get involved with local government, a sort of testing the waters for the future political science or public policy major.
"It's my civic duty," he says. "(Wright) and I worked together to get a plan together to propose an ordinance and take it to the City Council."
The ordinance Gibson and Wright proposed would have two components, the first would require Wilsonville Police to make contact with a panhandler to address their actions being counter to city code and to inform them of several local resources that help people in need. A fine, of which the amount is unclear at this time, would be imposed on panhandlers for second and subsequent infractions.
The June 5 council meeting led to a productive discussion with Mayor Tim Knapp, city councilors, City Manager Brian Cosgrove and City Attorney Barbara Jacobson. Jacobson pointed out that panhandlers who step out into traffic are already in violation of traffic law. No further ordinance is necessary for police to act on this type of behavior, however, police must witness the violation taking place.
Jacobson also explained the type of ordinance Gibson and Wright are proposing has been deemed unconstitutional in other cases at both the state and federal levels.
A challenge to the City of Medford's ordinance by the Oregon chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union resulted in the ordinance being deemed unconstitutional by a Jackson County judge. In 2007, the City of Ashland overturned its ordinance over similar concern that their ordinance violated the state's constitution.
But in recent years, the State of Oregon has seen a resurgence in public sentiment
for and against these types of laws.
In March of 2016, the City of Springfield passed an ordinance against the "unlawful exchange" of money or other materials by motorists. Springfield's ordinance comes with a $50 ticket to any motorist who is witnessed by police to be passing a panhandler any form of food or money or other material from their vehicle on any street or highway in the city.
The Springfield City Council passed the ordinance 4-1 after much consideration and public comment. During one public comment sessions, 14 citizens showed up to voice their opposition of the ordinance, according to minutes from the meeting dated April 4, 2016, with only two standing in favor of the policy. Despite the ordinance, Springfield Police Department Public Information Officer Lt. Scott McKee said Springfield Police have yet to write any citations under the new ordinance to his knowledge. Instead, McKee says, officers have taken the approach of informing and educating
pandhandlers on places to where they can receive assistance with food, finances and labor.
Accordingly, Springfield Police began a campaign to make contact with motorists seen making an unlawful transfer and advise them on how to safely transfer money, food or other material by parking nearby and walking out to meet a panhandler rather than stopping in the middle of the traffic right-of-way. McKee says he's seen a drop in panhandler activity since the passing of the ordinance last year and his department's campaign to educate panhandlers and motorists alike.
In Wilsonville, Community Relations Coordinator Jon Gail says City Attorney Jacobson is in the process of researching the details and legal challenges surrounding ordinances restricting panhandler activity. Jacobson is expected to give a report to the City Council within the next few months.
For Gibson and Wright, the public support for an ordinance makes their work a little easier, but not necessarily a sure thing. A survey conducted through social media of 281 Wilsonville residents showed around 85 percent approval of the proposed ordinance, with only around 15 percent opposing it. While the sample size is too small to gain an accurate representation of the sentiment of the entire 22,000 population of Wilsonville, Gibson believes the data suggests strong support for their cause, but what it really comes down to, Gibson says, is compassion.
"I think the community supports it," Gibson says, "but really the most important thing is that Wilsonville prides itself on being a compassionate place, but there's no real support system for these (panhandlers). If we're really so compassionate, how come we're not doing something about this?"
If you or someone you know lives in Wilsonville and needs assistance, Wilsonville Community Sharing's food bank is open 1 to 3 p.m. and 6 to 8 p.m. every Tuesday. For more information on their food bank or on how to donate call 503-682-6939 or visit Wilsonvillecommunitysharing.org.