Boise faces a new reality in panhandling
Residents and businesses want action, but the city is undecided about stricter rules BY ANNA WEBB - email@example.com
Copyright: © 2011 Idaho Statesman
Shawn Raecke / firstname.lastname@example.org Aaron Tapia, 25, and wife Julie, 28, would like to have jobs so they don¶t have to ask for charity and so they can afford a permanent home for their son, John. The family has been panhandling in Boise and in Meridian, as they are here near the Craft Warehouse at Fairview Avenue and Eagle Road. "People yell at us and say that we should be ashamed, and sometimes store managers tell us that we are an eyesore," Julie Tapia said. "Just because I'm homeless doesn¶t mean I¶m any less human."
Aaron and Julie Tapia live with their 4-year-old son in a 40-year-old RV. The rig has heat and running water. The Tapias are trying to stay independent and out of homeless shelters. So in between temp jobs and trying to find a safe place to park, they panhandle.
As Boise¶s leaders struggle with how to respond to a growing number of complaints from the public and businesses about this big-city problem, Aaron Tapia says tougher laws would penalize people like him who want to work but can¶t find a job. Last year, Boise launched an effort to urge citizens to give money to shelters, not to panhandlers. That doesn¶t help people like Tapia who have shelter and food but need money for necessities like gas. Bill Roscoe, director of the Boise Rescue Mission homeless shelter, sympathizes. He knows all about people in need and isn¶t in favor of more laws that restrict people¶s liberties. At the same time, he knows how tired business owners get of panhandlers harassing their customers. ³If you¶re a regular here, you get asked for money every day,´ said Barry Franklin, longtime barista at the Moxie Java on 17th Street, an area known for its concentration of people asking for spare change. Complaints about panhandlers are up dramatically since the 2008 economic downturn, Boise police say. And a recent city survey found 78 percent of Boiseans ³strongly´ agreeing with stricter limits for people who want to panhandle near ATMs, public restrooms, cafes and other sites where people congregate. So far, a city solution that works for everyone has remained elusive. CITY STUDIES THE PROBLEM, WEIGHS POSSIBLE LAW Boise Mayor Dave Bieter is well aware of public sentiment, said Adam Park, Bieter¶s spokesman. The mayor will decide in the next month or so whether to proceed with a plan to add muscle to an existing ordinance that many consider weak, hard to enforce and possibly unconstitutional. City leaders had originally planned to release details of a new ordinance in November and put it on the City Council¶s agenda this spring. That plan is on hold while the city¶s legal department takes another look at the proposal, which the city has not released to the public. ³The mayor wants to see this new version and see what the next steps are, if any,´ Park said. If the mayor does decide to go ahead, the ordinance will be the subject of a public hearing and several meetings. GROWING COMPLAINTS Along with more panhandler-related calls, Boise police officers, particularly those who patrol the Greenbelt, parks and Downtown, have noticed more people begging on public property, police spokeswoman Lynn Hightower said, ³and an increase on private property where businesses are complaining.´ Karen Sander, director of the Downtown Boise Association, said she¶s looking forward to seeing the proposed ordinance once the legal review is finished. She regularly fields complaints from Downtown businesses about panhandlers, some of whom have been aggressive with passers-by. Moxie Java barista Franklin and other staffers have had to call the police. ³From a business perspective, panhandlers do hurt us,´ Franklin said. ³Customers get uncomfortable. They don¶t want to sit outside.´
MULTIPLE STRATEGIES A stronger ordinance was one of two city projects related to panhandling. In November and December, the mayor¶s office rolled out the Have a Heart campaign that urged the public to give directly to local charitable organizations rather than to individual panhandlers. Park said the mayor¶s office has received a mostly positive response to the program from the public. ³The few complaints we have received have been from panhandlers seeking cash assistance, a couple comments from people who felt it isn¶t the proper role of government to tell[ the public how to donate their money, and a couple saying that we are being unfair to panhandlers because they need the money they receive,´ Park said. Sander said feedback from Downtown businesses has been positive. Merchants are happy to be able to tell their customers about an alternative to handing out spare change. Last spring, the mayor also met with nonprofit leaders on a ³Continuum of Care´ project to look at how to get federal assistance, besides just food and shelter, to people in need. RESULTS STILL UNCLEAR Jayne Sorrels, director of Interfaith Sanctuary, said it¶s hard to know if the Have a Heart program has had an impact. ³Donors don¶t tell us they¶re giving because they saw a sign about the program in Albertsons,´ said Sorrels. The months of November and December when the city launched the program already are the best months for donations ² when Sorrels anticipates raising 60 percent of donations for the whole year ² because of the holidays and people being more conscious when temperatures outside are falling. Roscoe said he didn¶t notice a bump in donations from the new campaign but does believe it raised public awareness of people in need. ³I haven¶t seen any decrease in panhandlers, though,´ Roscoe added. He and his staff try to offer support ² shelter, food, clothes ² to make panhandling unnecessary. If they see someone asking for money near one of the mission sites, they ask the person ³to move on,´ he said. JOBS REMAIN SCARCE Aaron Tapia said that when he panhandles, he tries to check with nearby businesses as a courtesy. He gets a mix of responses, he said. ³If they raise the question and want me off their corner, I tell them I will if they give me a job,´ he said. Questions about ordinances, restrictions and citizen complaints are abstract for him. What¶s not is finding a place to park the RV that he, his wife and son call home. Tapia acknowledges that some panhandlers are unsavory, and he¶s frustrated by those like the man whose sign reads, ³Why lie? I need a beer,´ who he says brings in far more cash than he does. He and Julie, usually accompanied by John, started panhandling five months ago for money for gas for the RV, the propane that heats it and the water for their showers. Their day¶s take can range from $1 to $50. Tapia came to Boise to look for work three years ago after getting laid off from a plastics factory in Post Falls. When living with a relative didn¶t work out, the Tapias sold their car and bought the well-worn RV as temporary lodging. Tapia recently worked two shifts for a temp agency, setting up and then taking down a technology expo at the Boise Centre.
He¶s put in applications at a score of box stores and fast-food places ² the same where he now asks for money ² but has had no luck. Tapia said he has few options. On the positive side, the family gets food stamps. Their cupboards are full. When passers-by give the Tapias bags of oranges or sandwiches, they usually donate them to other needy people. Police are courteous to his family, checking in frequently to make sure they¶re doing OK. ³They know us by name,´ Tapia said. On the negative side, there¶s a long wait list for subsidized housing ² frustrating because John is supposed to enter a Head Start program next year. The Tapias are trying to find a permanent parking place near a school. Aaron Tapia wonders if a tougher panhandling ordinance won¶t just make an already difficult life more so. Panhandling has been ³interesting,´ said Tapia, ³watching peoples¶ facial reactions, wondering, will they be rude? Will they be polite?´ The experience has been ³very humbling,´ he said. Anna Webb: 377-6431