Our Town: Trying to end panhandling | May 9, 2007 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Notes & Comments - May 9, 2007

Our Town: Trying to end panhandling

by Don Kazak

The Palo Alto community realized a long-desired goal of doing something meaningful about the problem of homeless people when the Opportunity Center opened last September.

The tenants in the 89 apartments include about 25 people who were formerly known to Eileen Richardson of the Downtown Streets Team as people who lived on the street.

The Opportunity Center, which includes two drop-in centers, was a collaboration of the Community Working Group, the City of Palo Alto and the community in general that dug deep to fund it.

But that may have been the easy part.

Another collaborative effort is going to start next month to try to end panhandling on Palo Alto streets. The effort will include reaching out to those who panhandle to try to get them the services they need to get off the street.

It's an ambitious effort that will take cooperation from police, the courts, the district attorney and social service agencies.

About 75 downtown business owners and others attended an April 10 forum to talk about the presence of homeless people on downtown streets. The business owners don't like them sitting in doorways and sometimes bothering shoppers with what Mayor Yoriko Kishimoto calls aggressive panhandling.

"People wouldn't panhandle if it wasn't rewarding," she said.

Richardson, who coordinates the work of a dozen formerly un-housed persons on the streets team, doesn't like panhandling for another reason.

"Giving to homeless people is killing them," she said. "We lost three over the holidays to alcohol-related complications."

She predicted some will resist the effort.

"But I truly believe that help is out there and anyone who wants it can get it," said Richardson, who has directed the streets team since it formed two years ago.

"We have to cut off the revenue stream to panhandlers," Richardson said.

The kick-off for the effort will be Saturday, June 9, in an event co-sponsored by the Downtown Streets Team and the Business Improvement District, the formation of which three years ago led to the creation of the streets team. Part of Bryant Street near University Avenue will be closed to traffic. A group of shop owners, Boutiques on Bryant, will offer a fashion show with music and dancers.

City officials may sit next to panhandlers on University Avenue, trying to dissuade people from giving them money, Richardson said. The mayor or city manager sitting in front of Walgreen's? It could happen.

The effort to end panhandling will involve police in a program called "restorative policing," patterned on a program begun by the San Rafael Police Department in 1999.

"We use law enforcement to help restore people back to the community," said San Rafael Officer Joel Fay, who is also a psychologist. "We use arrests as an opportunity for change. We can't fix these people but we can get them in touch with people who can help. We focus on the people who are the cause for calls for service."

Instead of going to jail or being put on probation for violating a law, a street person will be asked, "Do you want to do something different?" That means the police are in close touch with mental health programs and detox programs for substance and alcohol abusers, he said.

And it works.

"We have gotten them off the streets," Fay said of chronically mentally ill homeless persons who used to get drunk in downtown San Rafael.

But it takes a lot of work. The San Rafael police have two officers assigned full time to the effort, along with a full-time Marin County sheriff's deputy.

Palo Alto Police Capt. Dennis Burns envisions a similar effort.

"We're trying to identify the problematic panhandlers," he said. It will take "high-intensity case management" to work, he added.

Who's going to do the case management? Eileen Richardson smiled and raised her hand, also mentioning two others who work for social service agencies.

"We honestly know everyone in town, 175 homeless people," she said.

Senior Staff Writer Don Kazak can be e-mailed at dkazak@paweekly.com.


Posted by John banks, a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Oct 27, 2007 at 10:38 am

Need Milk.
St Vincents dinning room at 820 B Street is out of milk.

Panhandling for milk.

Posted by Walter_E_Wallis, a resident of Midtown
on Oct 28, 2007 at 5:55 am

Panhandlers need to be licensed and required to report income and pay taxes on it. Hey, we make minimum wage waiters report tips, and they work for them.

Posted by Joan, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 28, 2007 at 7:00 pm

They wouldn't keep panhandle in our town if people didn't keep giving them money. I have watched as people enter or leave Whole Foods and give money to a panhandler. We are our own worst enemy.

Posted by Walter_E_Wallis, a resident of Midtown
on Oct 29, 2007 at 4:10 am

Guilt is a powerful motivator.

Posted by Resident, a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 29, 2007 at 10:52 am

I walk down University Avenue in Palo Alto daily and I can attest to the fact that there are many more homeless people in the downtown area since the opportunity center opened. I have even begun to stop walking my usual route, eating at my usual places and buying necessities at the usual place downtown. There are just too many homeless ready for a fight if you don't give them money. Restorative policing did not work in San Rafael and it won't work here. I have spoken with several of the police officers and local shop owners and they don't think it is working at all. What has happened in San Rafael is that the residents have become jaded to the presence of the aggressive and non-aggressive homeless and have learned to avoid any contact with them. Isn't that just great for the law-abiding residents of San Rafael? How far are we going to go in appeasing the homeless and their vocal advocates before we begin to stand up for the rest of us? I think people like to pretend that the opportunity center was the solution. In reality, it was just the beginning of a much larger problem coming our way. I'm waiting for my youngest to graduate from Palo Alto High School and then I'm out of here before property values begin reflecting the reality of the downtown area.

Posted by TC merchant/Palo Alto resident, a resident of University South
on Oct 29, 2007 at 11:04 pm

I work in TC village and the last two days have been confronted by the same homeless man directly in our store. He has no interest in paying for any service we provide, but he continues to demand to speak with someone and have someone answer his questions, it is obvious we cannot help him. We direct him to a source that can help and he refuses to listen or take the referral advise. Fortunately both times we were ready to close, and we have so far been able to free ourselves from him. A second homeless man appeared today also demanding attention, in a very rude manner. Over the years we have served several kind, considerate homeless clients . We considered them "Palo Alto regulars" for over the past 10-15 years, and it has been our pleasure to serve these wonderful citizens. These recent encounters appear to be from the opportunity center and they are scary. We don't want to make a fuss because we fear retaliation.

Posted by California Ave shopper, a resident of Evergreen Park
on Oct 30, 2007 at 12:07 am

There have been three recent - and troubling - incidents on California Avenue.

One where feces were spread on the windows of a well-known, and long-established service.

Another two where *very* threatening behavior was driected at store owners in, and outside of, their respective stores. This was *seriously intimidating behavior*.

Homelessness is a tragedy, period. We need to do everything we can for the homeless.

But we also need to draw a *firm* line of NO TOLERANCE for antisocial behavior.

Posted by TK, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 30, 2007 at 8:59 am

Mayor Gavin Newtson in his State of the City address yesterday said the number of homeless in SF has dropped. Where do you suppose they've gone - right here to Palo Alto. San Francisco accomplished this by taking away their subsidies and providing them with housing.

I just don't go Downtown anymore or California Avenue. I do all my shopping in Mountain View or Los Altos.

Posted by anonymous, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Nov 1, 2007 at 9:57 am

I shop in Mountain View, rarely in Palo Alto. I actually feel sorry for Palo Alto merchants.

Posted by Lost student, a resident of Greenmeadow
on Nov 5, 2007 at 4:27 pm

I just started trying to find information about the homelessness problem in Palo Alto. Lots is kind of confusing and I’m having trouble getting started. Can someone help me with the answers for some questions, or where to find answers?
How many homeless are there in Palo Alto now? How many were here before the opportunity center? Where did it come from? Where can I find homeless people to talk to besides there? What has the city done about them? How much money does it spend each year on them? What should we do? Are things San Francisco is doing good? How much do they spend?
Thank you for any help.

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