Political Notebook

‘They should be ashamed.’ Panhandling issue spirals into tense debate at Fresno City Council

Panhandling proposal mostly panned at Fresno City Hall

Opponents and at least one supporter spoke out about Steve Brandau's panhandling proposal Thursday afternoon
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Opponents and at least one supporter spoke out about Steve Brandau's panhandling proposal Thursday afternoon

Fresno won’t put up signs discouraging residents from donating to panhandlers — for now.

There ultimately weren’t enough votes from the Fresno City Council to pass Councilmember Garry Bredefeld’s “Help Us, Help Fresno” resolution to put up signs throughout the city encouraging people to donate to charity instead of panhandlers. Councilmembers Esmeralda Soria, Miguel Arias and Nelson Esparza voted against it. Arias was a co-sponsor of the resolution.

Mayor Lee Brand, Police Chief Jerry Dyer and representatives with the Fresno Chamber of Commerce all voiced support for the signs, but many people from the community spoke in opposition to them.

Bredefeld called Arias a “fraud” and “disingenuous” for voting against the resolution. He also said the three council members who voted against it are soft and “pro-panhandling.”

“These three with radical, left-wing policies want to pander to people who promote living in the streets,” he said. “They should be ashamed, and their constituents need to know they turned their backs on those who are yelling for us to do something to solve this problem. I hear the concerns of my constituents and I’m trying to do something to fix the problem.”

Soria responded by saying personal attacks are not productive, and said Bredefeld wants to criminalize homelessness. Arias said Bredefeld’s comments further divide the city.

“Anyone who’s prepared to make statements about how I vote better be ready to walk my district with me in 106-degree weather this summer to hear from my constituents themselves,” Esparza said.

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Three Fresno City Council members have proposed a resolution to put up signs in places where people frequently panhandle to encourage the public to give to charities instead. (The text and phone numbers are still being set up; the ones on the model sign are conceptual.) Screenshot City of Fresno

Before the vote, Bredefeld was willing to allow councilmembers to choose the design of the signs and to have them in multiple languages. He also offered to pay the approximately $20,000 cost from his own district infrastructure budget.

But community members and other council members said the signs would not address the root causes of the panhandling problem.

Councilmember Luis Chavez said city leaders spent time addressing the symptoms of homelessness, not the root causes.

“The biggest problem at the city of Fresno is we don’t have credibility when it comes to helping the homeless,” said Chavez, who represents southeast Fresno.

Mike Rhodes, a longtime homeless advocate, told council members similar approaches to the signs have been tried in the past without solving the problem. He recommended the city provide vacant land or a shelter for the homeless to camp or stay, with basic services like drinking water, toilets and trash pickup.

“We should not be spending public money to try and starve homeless people into submission,” he said. “Homeless people are our brothers and sisters who need to be treated with dignity and respect, just like you would like to be treated if you became homeless.”

Arias said he’s open to continuing to discuss the issue and bring back an even stronger policy that has more community support. Soria prefers a holistic approach that address the root causes, “while treating people humanely.”

This was not the first debate in recent weeks at city hall about panhandling.

Former Councilmember Steve Brandau last month proposed an ordinance that would fine panhandlers and the people who donated to them in intersections. The ordinance failed, and Bredefeld proposed the Help Us, Help Fresno sign resolution as an answer.

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Brianna Calix covers Fresno’s city government for The Bee, where she works to hold public officials accountable, analyze city policy and inform readers how city hall decisions might affect their lives. She previously worked for The Bee’s sister paper, the Merced Sun-Star.