Should you give to panhandlers? Kennewick urges no

Kennewick is borrowing a page from Aberdeen's anti-panhandling playbook.

Tuesday, Kennewick posted 23 signs in 17 high-profile spots advising people to give money to charity, not panhandlers.

The move is modeled on signs first posted about a decade ago in Aberdeen.

Sgt. Aaron Clem said a Kennewick police officer spotted the signs while on vacation and snapped a photo to share back home.

"We thought it was a great idea," he said.

Aberdeen's version reads

"KEEP THE CHANGE. Don't support Panhandling. The majority of your change goes to drugs & alcohol. Help more by giving to charity"

Kennewick liked the idea and designed its own version. The local edition tells people to be part of the solution by giving to charity instead of people standing on the sidewalk asking for money.

Panhandlers create traffic hazards

The city's goal is reduce the number of panhandlers while steering more support to long-term solutions, Clem said.

Panhandling sign install
Kennewick employees Tyrel Davis, left, and Bryan Garza install one of 26 new signs Tuesday at the intersection of South Quillan Street and West 27th Avenue. The Kennewick Police Department is encouraging motorists to contribute to local charities instead of panhandlers. Watch a video at: tricityherald.com/video Bob Brawdy Tri-City Herald

He maintains the issue is safety. When drivers stop to hand money to a panhandler, they create an unexpected traffic hazard for other cars.

Stepping into traffic puts the person receiving the money at risk along with other pedestrians.

There are no hard numbers, but anecdotally, panhandling is more visible in the Tri-Cities since 2015.

That's when a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Reed v. Town of Gilbert, Ariz., clarified that municipalities can't impose content-based restrictions on signs under the First Amendment.

The Washington Supreme Court echoed the ruling when it ruled a Lakewood "begging" ordinance unconstitutionally restricted free speech rights.

Washington's Municipal Research Service Center, a nonprofit serving municipal governments, advised cities to update their sign codes to ensure they comply.

Kennewick, which had a law against panhandling at major intersections, dropped it from the books last year.

"It's not illegal to panhandle and it's not illegal to be homeless," Clem said.

The new signs are comparable in size to a bus stop sign or a "no parking" sign and are posted at 27 spots where panhandlers are common, including West 27th and Quinault Avenue near the Burger King, outside of the Kennewick McDonald's at Highway 395 and near the Starbucks at Clearwater Avenue and 395.

Public works crews began installing them at 5 a.m. Tuesday and reported mixed results.

At McDonald's, a panhandler sat directly underneath the new sign. At Starbucks, a man thrashed the sign post with a cane. Another man said he'd continue asking for money unless people get mad.

Helping versus hurting

Andrew Porter, executive director of the Tri-City Union Gospel Mission in Pasco, agrees many panhandlers are scrounging for money to feed an addiction.

The mission discusses the pros and cons of giving money to panhandlers on its web site, tcugm.org/panhandling

Giving or not giving is an individual decision, but the mission advises people who want to help to print out its "Rescue Card," which advises panhandlers where to find the mission and what services are available.

Panhandling sign hold
Chris McEachern, 47, asks drivers for money at West Clearwater Avenue and Highway 395 on Tuesday near a new sign installed by Kennewick urging motorists to contribute to local charities instead of panhandlers. "I won't change .... as long as people don't get mad at me about it.," said McEachern. Watch a video at: tricityherald.com/video

The mission, he notes, offers three meals a day, a place to sleep and showers.

The men's shelter will move into new quarters this fall, but for now it is housed in an aging and crowded building in Pasco.

For those who want to do more, Porter advises tucking supplies such as water, socks, granola bars, toiletries and a rescue card into a gallon Ziploc bag.

That said, helping people survive another day on the street could do more harm than good by keeping them from the services they need to get clean, sober and back on their feet.

"There are places — we're one of them — where you can get that kind of help."

The results in Aberdeen are unclear. Its signs remain in place, often with panhandlers standing nearby.

Wendy Culverwell: 509-582-1514