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Tuesday, February 19 , 2019, 9:47 am | Fair 52º

 
 
 
 

Santa Barbara Council Approves Tighter Panhandling Restrictions for Downtown Corridor

The Santa Barbara City Council voted on Tuesday to tighten regulations on panhandling in the downtown area, a move that brought out homeless advocates and the business community alike to comment.

About a year ago, the council directed the city's ordinance committee to talk about changes to the city's panhandling laws, and on Tuesday, some changes were made that included the prohibition of urinating and defecating in public and extending the city's "sit/lie ordinance" into the earlier morning hours. All of the ordinances apply to the 400 to 1200 blocks of State Street.

Displaying items for sale on street furniture will also be prohibited. 

"Those benches are for sitting, and when they're occupied by goods laid out for sale, it prevents being used for sitting," said City Attorney Ariel Calonne, who briefed the council on the changes.

The council also voted to expand the prohibited areas for active panhandling, such as someone calling out for money, and "where people have a sense of being captive and unable to escape the situation," Calonne said.

That includes active panhandling within 25 feet of an outdoor dining space, which the council approved.

Passive panhandling, such as someone sitting with a sign asking for money, is allowed any place in the city and is constitutionally protected speech. The city forbids abusive panhandling anywhere in the city, which is defined as an aggressive interaction that would intimidate someone.

Councilman Frank Hotchkiss asked Calonne why someone holding a sign, who may look menacing but who does not vocally ask for money, would not be prohibited from the 25-foot zone of outdoor dining.

"Someone could be silently threatened. That may put you in a difficult position," he told the city attorney. "But that's what I think the community is looking for."

The ordinance would also prohibit active panhandling around 50 feet of an ATM teller, and within 25 feet of a line people waiting to gain admission to a place of business or a vehicle or waiting to purchase an item of admission ticket.

Active panhandling would also be prohibited on buses and other public transportation.

The committee also looked at extending the amount of time prohibited for people to sit or lie on State Street.

It's crucial that the sit/lie ordinance only apply to a very narrow portion of State Street, Calonne said, leaving "ample locations for people to gain respite for their need to sleep."

The changes would prohibit sitting or lying from 7 a.m. until 2 a.m., which moves the clock back into the early morning hours, and had previously only applied until 9 p.m. The ordinance would apply to the 400 through 1200 blocks of State Street and to railings, statues, sculptures and planters in that area.

The proposal would also delegate the Santa Barbara library director the authority to post rules on the surrounding premises, including the library's courtyard, a problem area in the past, and those rules would be enforceable by police.

During public comment, homeless advocate Peter Marin questioned the city's assumption that plenty of restrooms were available to the homeless, making it unavoidable that they'd violate the ordinance.

"From midnight to 5 a.m., how many of those restrooms are open to the public to prevent people from urinating and defecating in public?" he said.

Calonne said there are at least a dozen restrooms available to the public in the downtown corridor, but was unsure how many were open late at night.

Marin also told the council that he intended to contact the ACLU with a copy of the ordinance to "make sure it passes muster."

"Don't think they're not going to be reviewed by people who are more sympathetic to the homeless than you are," he said.

Santa Barbara Region Chamber of Commerce President Ken Oplinger said the group supported the changes, but also stated that all four of the banks in the area, including Montecito Bank & Trust and First Republic Bank, should have the same buffer zones.

Oplinger also said re-examining the definition of active and passive panhandling, as Hotchkiss suggested, "is something we would strongly support."

All of the changes passed unanimously, except for two, in which Councilwoman Cathy Murillo and Mayor Helene Schneider did not support the changes of prohibiting active panhandling in specific locations and did not support the sit/lie ordinance.      

Murillo said she would like to leave the buffer around ATMs at 25 feet, because she's heard from police that they don't have harassment any closer than that.

"I don't hear from banks that it's a problem," she said, adding that though people should not be sitting or lying in the street, but wanted to keep the ordinance at its current 9 p.m. expiration.

"There are no rentals in this town … And Casa Esperanza has gone sober," she said, adding that there are few alternative places for people to sleep.

Schneider said that any time people line up outside of the Apple Store to wait for the latest gadget with chairs and tents, or outside of a much-anticipated movie, those people were not prosecuted, even though they are potential violators of the sit/lie ordinance. She expressed concern the ordinance was not content neutral to all people, as the city attorney had maintained.

Councilman Randy Rowse, chairman of the Ordinance Committee that discussed the changes before they were brought back to council, said that at no time was the discussion about the homeless.

"It's about behavior," he said. "That's all it's about. ... It's not about people or a person. It never was it never will be. This is exactly that this town needs."

Councilman Dale Francisco said he fundamentally disagreed with the courts on the free speech issue, and that Santa Barbara residents offer much help to the homeless, often more than they should.

"In return, they often get terrible behavior," he said. "I think this is the least we can do for the citizens of Santa Barbara."

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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