Looking behind the scenes: Officials mull solutions for dealing with proliferation of panhandlers

By: Jim Ruffalo
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There’s a new problem for Auburn merchants fighting the never-ending battle of trying to make a living. On top of being the prime target of any governmental agency possessing the ability to tax, and with every non-profit in the village asking for a donation, now comes what local law enforcement euphemistically calls “aggressive panhandling.” Aggressive, huh? How about extortion, strong-arming or even assault in some cases. Try going to Bel-Air, Rite Aid or even Staples and the odds are pretty near even that you’ll get hit up by somebody asking you for “spare change” — as if such a thing existed these days. And if you’re in your car at some of the local intersections, it’s not all that unusual to be approached by a panhandler posing as a pedestrian. It seems we’ve gone from the occasional person seated at some crosswalk or business driveway holding a sign bearing some bleak or pleading message, with each phrase designed to get us to hand over some of our hard-earned. How about the next time you’re in an Auburn shop, inquire of the business owner if he or she gets asked for money by somebody wandering in off the street. Only three or four times each and every business day. The problem is getting so bad locally that City Councilman Kevin Hanley told the Meddlers that the city was looking into the problem, and he expected some sort of action post haste. How soon? Well, I was told that city police officials met with a handful of Elm Avenue merchants on Thursday, although I’ve yet to get anybody go on record with the results. Placer County Sheriff Ed Bonner told me that unincorporated North Auburn is experiencing the same influx. “We’ve seen a real increase in what’s being termed as aggressive panhandling, and there’s also been a spike in the number of homeless coming to that area,” he said. Bonner said the aggressiveness may be for the same reasons we now see so many “lunch specials” signs plastered on the windows of nearly every area diner. “There’s only a certain amount of money available, and now we see merchants being competitive in trying to get customers. Well, the same may be true for panhandlers,” he said. Meanwhile, Mayor Bridget Powers told me that she expects discussions about the problem to be on an upcoming City Council agenda. “Auburn has become a magnet for the homeless and for panhandlers, especially from the younger kids,” she said, adding that she thinks that Auburn’s reputation of helping out combines with our comfy climate to entice this latest wave of newcomers. “I can’t blame the merchants for being concerned. The problem is getting worse, and we’re prepared to do something about it,” she said City Manager Bob Richardson confirmed that “research and investigation” were being done on the issues, but begged off providing additional comment “until the council gets a look at the (facts.).” I doubt I’m in the minority when I feel that the homeless population is mainly made up of three prime contingents — the indigent, mentally deficient and those who just like that sort of life. For the most part, the indigent have exhausted their resources. Those with mental problems aren’t — and have not — been getting the assistance they’ve needed all along. County Supervisor Jim Holmes was right on the mark when he recently said that “public health is public safety” when it comes to how we should budget taxpayers’ money. As for those who chose that life? Save the help for the needy, not the greedy. So if the preceding are all valid constructs, then the solution must address at least the first two of the reasons. Granted, reinforcing Auburn’s current panhandling ordinance may be required, but other efforts are required. Don’t be surprised if one of the ideas getting a look by the council turns out to be lock-boxes. My source says the idea calls for placing lock-boxes at the city’s various shopping sites. Those boxes would be receptacles for cash donations that passersby usually give to the panhandlers. “This way, we not only know that the donation goes toward helping out, but also could be gathered together to be given to the local social service community as a whole,” the source said. That’s not a bad idea. After all, who among us has not had their heart called upon for a donation to somebody claiming to be needy, yet our hands never hit our purses or wallets because there’s that little voice telling us that donation was headed — along with the asker — to the nearest saloon?