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Panhandling law may need adjustment to curb problem
Despite the fact that the weather was cold and drizzling last week, a disheveled man wearing a grimy gray sweatshirt and flannel pajama bottoms shuffled near an intersection along Hatch Road. He paced as he awaited a red light that will keep drivers captive near him. He surreptitiously reached into his clothing and pulled out a small folded cardboard sign reading that he's homeless. The beggar pitifully walked by the passenger side of each car as he lowly held his sign, hoping that a window would roll down with an arm extending money to him.

His style of panhandling is illegal because of a 2004 Ceres city ordinance that restricts panhandling activities. But the problem of beggars on Hatch Road still persists. With officers saying that homeless activity seems to bo on the rise in Ceres, it may be time to "tune up" the panhandling ordinance, said Ceres Police Chief Art deWerk.

"Modesto made changes to theirs and whenever the communities make a change it affects everybody else," said deWerk.

Cities cannot outright prohibit panhandling, he said, because of constitutionally protected free speech issues but the city did enact limitations based on other peoples' rights being infringed as well as traffic and safety concerns. The Ceres ordinance prohibits panhandling during darkness, within 100 feet of any signalized intersection, aggressive panhandling, panhandling within 25 feet of ATMs and approaching cars to panhandle. The ordinance is punishable with a misdemeanor citation.

DeWerk said aggressive panhandling includes blocking someone's path, cursing at them, touching, relentless following, and harassing a person for money.

A citizen was "distressed" to report to deWerk recently that a beggar who stations himself at the signal atop the Hatch Road/Highway 99 overpass will routinely activate the pedestrian button to purposely stop vehicles and captivate drivers while appealing for donations. That can cause traffic to back up on the offramp and into the lanes of the freeway.

"That's a big irritant," said deWerk.

The chief said he never expected the city ordinance to end the problem of panhandling in Ceres but noted the city needed to enact similar laws in neighboring cities to prevent Ceres from being a mecca for beggars.

"Panhandlers are a symptom of much larger societal issues and no local city ordinance can address the underlying causes of homelessness and poverty," said deWerk. "Not all homeless people are panhandlers, and not all panhandlers are homeless. There are also much larger numbers of homeless people who aren't easily identified or regularly seen by the average person. I have heard estimates that there are thousands of truly homeless people in Stanislaus County. Some of them resort to panhandling as a means to support themselves, but frankly, we believe that those who are the most needy are actually relying on social service agencies and food banks to meet their needs. Apparently panhandling is not their primary source of income."

According to deWerk, many panhandlers are using the donations from kind-hearted Good Samaritans to support drug and alcohol habits. He said the public could put a dent in the problem by not rewarding beggars with donations.

Police Department records reveal that approximately 104 complaints were called into the department about panhandlers in 2011, and 131 so far this year. Interestingly, no citations were issued nor were any arrests made. Apparently the reporting parties did not wish to file formal complaints, and the violators were warned with no further action.

In the case of aggressive panhandling, deWerk said there must be a "victim" who is willing to get involved in the legal process by making a citizen's arrest. Most people, however, are satisfied with the officer warning a violator, and not interested in having to testify in court.

"A violation of the panhandling ordinance is a misdemeanor, and unless a police officer witnesses the offense, he or she cannot arrest the violator," said deWerk. "As a cop, my attitude is we can write a ticket but what's the use? The jail won't hold them because of overcrowding and they won't be held accountable."