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Newport considering campaign to encourage people to donate to charity, rather than give to panhandlers

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A woman accepts a driver’s donation Tuesday at the traffic signal where Newport Boulevard meets West Coast Highway.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Newport Beach is considering launching an informational campaign aimed at discouraging people from donating directly to panhandlers, and to instead direct their money to charities that help the homeless and needy.

The proposal avoids thorny constitutionality issues by not banning the acts of seeking or offering handouts, but rather encouraging an alternative, said Mayor Pro Tem Will O’Neill, the movement’s author.

On Tuesday, O’Neill told the city’s homelessness task force, which he chairs, that some Newport residents have asked if the city can prohibit panhandling or begging.

“The answer is no, we can’t, and the reason we can’t is because federal court after federal court has concluded that panhandling is protected by the First Amendment,” he said.

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Ordinances outright banning panhandling have repeatedly been found unconstitutional around the country. In 2017, the city of Sacramento attempted to prohibit panhandling on medians and near shopping center driveways, transit stops, banks and ATMs. A federal judge soon blocked enforcement of the regulations on free speech grounds, and Sacramento repealed the law this year.

Other cases abound, with similar restrictions scuttled for the same reason: in Hot Springs, Arkansas, and Albuquerque, New Mexico, this year; Cleveland last year, Slidell, Louisiana, in 2017 and Akron, Ohio, in 2016. In 2012, a Humboldt County judge struck down most of an ordinance banning panhandling in the town of Arcata.

Since 2015, 25 of 25 anti-panhandling cases challenged in court have been found unconstitutional, according to the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty.

Cities and counties around California with messaging campaigns highlighting organized charitable giving include Simi Valley, Fresno, Lakewood, Upland, Modesto, Bakersfield, Ventura, Pomona and San Bernardino County. The practice pops up in other states as well.

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In a similar vein, Huntington Beach and Laguna Beach maintain “giving meters” that look like parking meters but collect change to help fund homeless services. Plaques on the Huntington meters encourage donors to “give a hand up, not a hand out, to stop panhandling.”

panhandling signage
Dublin, Ohio, and San Bernardino County have similar informational campaigns encouraging the charitable to not give directly to panhandlers.
(Courtesy of city of Newport Beach)

Newport residents’ wide-ranging concerns and opposition to panhandling include the safety of people walking in medians close to traffic, landscaping being trampled and questions about what the money is being used for, according to a city staff report. Some attendees at Tuesday’s task force meeting said they have heard panhandling is lucrative and that the people who do it prefer it to working.

But task force member David Snow, a sociology professor at UC Irvine who has done extensive research on homelessness, said an area study he participated in found that the median monthly income of a homeless person was $500, refuting “the sense that homeless who panhandle make a great deal of money.”

“If the homeless, in general, believe they can do better panhandling ... than even minimum-wage jobs, that’s a bad bet,” he said.

Helen Cameron, another task force member who works for an affordable and supportive housing developer, said she would rather invest in getting people into stable housing.

“I think it’s a handful of people [who panhandle] so perhaps we can put our energy into finding out what their real reasons for being on those locations are and see if we can help them make alternative decisions,” she said.

If the Newport City Council signs off, signs touting the campaign’s message could go up in locations that police have noted as high-profile spots for panhandlers: Coast Highway at Dover Drive and Newport Boulevard; the driveway to Fashion Island off San Miguel Drive; and the corner of San Miguel and San Joaquin Hills Road in Corona del Mar.

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The council will take up the discussion at its meeting next Tuesday.

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