Fresno council should turn down proposed law aimed at intersection panhandling

A panhandler works the corner of Fresno and Shaw, Wednesday morning, July 4, 2018.
A panhandler works the corner of Fresno and Shaw, Wednesday morning, July 4, 2018. Fresno Bee file

It is not uncommon for Fresno drivers stopped at a traffic light to be approached by people seeking money or food.

Most Fresnans are kind and generous, so drivers will give a few dollars or any food item they can spare.

But several members of the City Council want to end that practice because of the dangers that come with panhandling in traffic. Steve Brandau, Paul Caprioglio and Luis Chavez will propose Thursday a new law called STOP, which stands for “Safe Transfer of Objects to Pedestrians.”

Under the law, any driver who hands something to a pedestrian from a vehicle at or within 200 yards of a signal-light intersection will be in violation. A pedestrian who takes something from a vehicle would also be in violation. The infraction will cost a first-time offender a $75 fine. A second offense is $150, and a third and subsequent offenses are $300 apiece.

The measure would be a pilot project in effect for one year. Another council vote would be needed to continue it.

The goal of the law, backers say, is to reduce pedestrian deaths and clear out panhandling hot spots, such as the Shaw-Blackstone or Clovis-Kings Caynon intersections.

Pedestrian deaths on local roads are an ongoing problem. Twenty-five people were killed walking across or along city streets last year; eight pedestrians have died this year. Most of the deaths occurred away from traffic-signal intersections. Police do not break out deaths occurred while a person was asking for money at an intersection. The last such death Police Chief Jerry Dyer could recall came in 2009.

As well intentioned as STOP may be, the city already has laws dealing jaywalking, loitering and being in road medians without a permit. (Fundraisers like Kids Day and Fill the Boot are permitted). While the new ordinance would add specific language to encounters between drivers and pedestrians at traffic signals, it is not really needed.

There are other reasons why the law should not be passed:

One question is whether STOP would hold up if a lawsuit was brought. The city does not need to risk precious dollars opposing what may be a dubious legal case.

Police have all they can handle fighting serious crime in the city. Catching drivers trying to be generous to panhandlers would be an additional burden for traffic officers.

Advocates for the poor, as well as some of Fresno’s clergy, plan to attend Thursday’s hearing and criticize the proposed law as an attack on the homeless as well as people of color. Chavez will reply that they are misunderstanding the intent of the law, which he said is aimed at panhandlers, some of whom engage in the behavior almost as a full-time pursuit.

The best way to deal with panhandlers is not to penalize well-meaning drivers. Instead, motorists need to be told not to roll down a car window at a traffic light and hand someone dollar bills. Fresno has well-established nonprofits that know best how to help needy people. Two such examples are the Rescue Mission and Poverello House.

The city also has a new team focused on helping homeless people get shelter and services. If a driver gets approached by someone who appears homeless, that motorist should call the city and pass on the details.

Another solution might be found in Fort Worth, Texas. There, under a campaign called FWChange, the city has a web page that educates residents about the best ways to help those seeking handouts. The recommended way to give is by texting any amount to the local homeless coalition. The city has posters, business cards and other visuals that advertise the message.

Instead of passing STOP, the City Council should try a novel approach that uses the carrot of making a donation for good, and not the stick of a fine that smacks well-meaning citizens.

If you go

The proposed STOP measure will be heard at 3 p.m. Thursday in the council chamber in Fresno City Hall, 2600 Fresno St.