Forum considers downtown panhandlers in Port Angeles

Police Chief Brian Smith tells those at the meeting that a 60-day program of tighter enforcement appears to be working.

PORT ANGELES — Have downtown panhandlers become less aggressive?

Port Angeles Police Chief Brian Smith told those at a 2½-hour community forum Tuesday night that a 60-day program of tighter enforcement that began in June appears to be working.

About 50 people attended the Port Angeles Downtown Association meeting on homelessness, transients, aggressive panhandling and illegal drug activity sponsored by the Port Angeles Downtown Association and held at The Landing mall.

The meeting included panel presentations by Kim Leach, executive director of Serenity House of Clallam County’s homeless outreach and shelter services; Wendy Sisk, Peninsula Behavioral Health clinical director; Christina Hurst, Clallam County public health program manager; and Port Angeles Fire Chief Ken Dubuc.

City Council members on June 21 were on the verge of considering tougher laws, such as making panhandling legal only in certain areas of downtown. Deputy Mayor Cherie Kidd said the issue may be on the agenda for the next regular meeting Sept. 6.

They were responding to 96 residents who had signed an online petition — and according to Kidd, 200 people who had complained — about aggressive panhandling, a Class 2 misdemeanor punishable by citation, though not jail.

Council members decided to wait 60 days to see if stepped-up enforcement quelled the complaints.

There were six panhandling complaints in January, six in February, seven in March, six in April, eight in May, seven in June, four in July, and three through early Wednesday afternoon, Sgt. Jason Viada said.

Police Chief Brian Smith told meeting participants to “take control of your property” by posting signs that indicate allowable activity and urged them to call law enforcement when people violate the restrictions.

But he reminded them that panhandling itself without, for example, blocking someone’s path is not illegal.

“We’re doing well responding to aggressive panhandling,” he told them. “Panhandling in some places is not happening at all.

“We’re not there yet. We have done a lot of outreach.

“In an urban environment, if someone is going to come up and ask you something, how do you get past the free speech?

“People choose to give money to people in those situations,” Smith said. “That’s another decision people choose to make.”

Entrepreneurs also spoke of people using the doorway of Mark’d Body Art studio at 119 W. First St. as a bathroom and complained of loiterers languishing at the front door of Black Diamond Bridal at 109 E. First St., scaring away customers.

But homeless and formerly homeless residents also pleaded for respect and described fears of violence against them, as they did at a similar meeting Aug. 16 at the Vern Burton Community Center.

Iantha Frazer, who works at Black Diamond Bridal, said she attended the Aug. 16 meeting.

“My concern, when I left the meeting, was we have a lot of marginalized people in the community,” she said.

“We also have a group of people that are busting their asses to keep their business open and there are actually people running and walking away because of the aggressive panhandling.

“This is where violence is going to happen, when you lose a sense of order,” Frazer warned.

Glen Barbieri, who said he was homeless in San Diego and now lives in public housing, expressed fears about violence against the homeless.

Kaila Mulvane, who said she is homeless, noted there is violence among the homeless, too.

But if her friends have a problem, they are afraid to speak up to police for fear of losing their meager belongings.

“They are just lost,” she said.

“They need help, a hand up and someone to give them that help,” Mulvane said to applause.

But business owners were perplexed.

Tattoo artist Marcus Tanner, owner of Mark’d Body Art, asked what he should do when he doesn’t want to call the police.

He has seen people doing drugs outside his business at noon, he said.

People who lack a roof over their heads also lack toilet facilities.

“They use my back door as a bathroom,” Tanner added. “It’s 20 feet from a city restroom that is locked. What I’d like to see is more resources.”

Port Book and News owner Alan Turner said his sense from customers is, “Things are not getting better, things are getting worse.”

Customers tell him they don’t go downtown anymore because of the unsavory environment.

“It seems to me we have several groups here,” he said of Tuesday’s gathering.

“It doesn’t feel like we are all working on the same problem.”

The panel participants described a steadily greater need for the services they offer.

With no overnight shelters downtown, Serenity House has started a nightly van ride from downtown to its shelter on West 18th Street, Leach said.

“We have people that are literally homeless that we don’t have shelter space for,” she said, estimating five chronically homeless families in Port Angeles and 20 to 30 chronically homeless individuals.

At Peninsula Behavioral Health, outreach services increased 43 percent between 2013 and 2015 to 60,000, part of a statewide trend due to a complex set of social factors, Sisk said.

Hurst said 800 people a year use a syringe-exchange program to prevent blood-borne pathogens from spreading, but added the majority of drug takers don’t use the program.

And Dubuc talked of a half-dozen 9-1-1 calls that emergency personnel respond to monthly “from people who just see someone lying on the ground and don’t know what else to do but call 9-1-1.”

At 12:45 p.m. and 1:02 p.m. Wednesday, Fire Department personnel responded to two such calls about men lying in the grass off North Lincoln and East First streets, said Assistant Chief-Fire Marshall Mike Sanders.

The department has seen an increase in 9-1-1 calls across the board in Sanders’ 22 years with the department, he said.

“People are more comfortable in calling” the emergency line, Sanders said.

“That may be part of the reason for the increase.”

________

Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 55650, or at [email protected].

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