Presented with the subject of panhandling Monday night, the Mill Valley City Council tiptoed around the sensitive issue and directed city staff to study it more closely but took no action.
The issue was placed on the council's agenda after some complaints from local residents to city staff and councilmembers about panhandling at traffic intersections. It was not prompted by any specific incidents.
City Manager Jim McCann said in addition to the complaints, there had been instances where the flow of traffic was disrupted by panhandlers who were pressing the button that changed the stoplights to allow pedestrians to cross, allowing them to solicit fro stopped cars.
For comparative purposes, McCann presented the council with ordinances adopted by Fairfield and Milpitas, both of which cited the danger posed to both the panhandler and drivers by having them in the medians.
The discussion seemed to leave a few councilmembers wondering whether it was an issue worth pursuing.
"I would hate to think that what we are doing here is simply because we don't want to look at poor people or that we don't want to recognize them existing in our community," Vice Mayor Ken Wachtel said. "We live in enough of a rarified economic community that the reason to do this shouldn't be that we don't want to look at poor people because it sullies up our town."
"I just don't see this as a big, big problem," Councilman Andrew Berman said.
Councilman Garry Lion said he was concerned about the issue and said the lack of incidents shouldn't prevent the city from doing something about it.
"We don't have to have someone die here before we do something," he said.
The council did agree on the issue of general safety concerns, and that regulating activity on the medians for anyone – panhandlers, politicians soliciting votes during election season or local organizations selling their wares – might be the way to go.
"I actually do think that it is unsafe for anyone to be in the medians," Councilwoman Shawn Marshall said. "But that has nothing to do with panhandling."
Mill Valley Police Captain Jim Wickham said the department continues to monitor panhandling in the city. He said the city now has three or four regular panhandlers, although the amount of panhandling activity has ebbed and flowed over the years.
"There has definitely been an increase in the last several months, and it's obviously tied to the economy," he said.
But Wickham said the department was not aware of any incidents or car accidents related to panhandling or median activity.
"We look at it as a safety issue and making sure that it's not affecting our driving public," he said. "Right now, it's not affecting our driving public."
Only two members of the public participated in the discussion, with each offering an opposing viewpoint.
Jonathan Frieman, a resident of San Rafael who previously worked for the Homeless Advocacy Project in San Francisco, asked the council to show restraint and work with local organizations like Ritter House in San Rafael to connect local homeless people with support services.
"It's really difficult being homeless – it's very shameful," he said.
Elizabeth Manning, a local resident and a social worker, felt quite differently.
"We are doing none of them a favor to allow this to go on here," she said. "We pay taxes so that we don't have to look at that. It's bad for children to see that going on."
Mike Waters, a local homeless man who spends a couple of afternoons a week panhandling at the intersection of Camino Alto and East Blithedale, said most motorists he encountered did not share Manning's view.
A native of Indiana who sleeps "in the hills over in Strawberry," Waters said most motorists are friendly, although donations have dropped from around $60 in a day last winter to $30-$40 a day recently.
"People are pretty friendly overall," he said. "You can make enough to eat and survive. You have the occasional person who yells, 'get a job.' But that's rare."
Waters, 52, sought to dispel the notion that he's simply begging for money to spend on drugs or alcohol.
"I do this out here to survive – to get money for food," he said. "I don't mean anybody any harm. I'm not there trying to support a drug or alcohol habit. I'm just trying to survive."
Waters said police rarely hassle him, only occasionally asking him for identification if they've received a complaint.
"They're always cordial and polite, he said. "They treat you like a human being."
He said he understands the concern of local residents, especially when he sees panhandlers he knows are coming from well outside of town to make a buck.
"There's a woman from San Francisco who sits down in a wheelchair and then when she's done, she gets up and walks away," he said. "That has to do with more people being out here – people just get tired of seeing it, and they don't give as much."
Waters said he is the only one of the panhandlers he knows of that lives in the area. He said there is one guy who stays in Marin City, the woman from San Francisco and a couple who come from Richmond occasionally.
Monday night wasn't the first time that complaints had pushed the matter in front of the council. In 2004, complaints prompted the city to post a sign at the intersection of Miller Ave. and Camino Alto, encouraging residents to donate to organized charities as opposed to panhandlers.
The City Council seemed to agree that they'd noticed an uptick in panhandling this year but less activity in the past few weeks. They directed McCann and his staff to find out how much of an issue panhandling is in other cities and towns in Marin and what they are doing about it.
Wachtel said he wanted to see some documentation about the danger panhandling posed locally to motorists, pedestrians and panhandlers.
"If there is a documented danger to the individual or motorists, that's something we could look at," he said. "But illegalizing something doesn't get rid of the problem."
Manning said the issue was indeed a safety hazard, and said the city was putting its coffers at risk.
"It's a distraction," she said. "If you're going to stand or sit on a median, you're going to have a higher chance of being involved in some sort of accident. That raises the liability for the city."