After receiving frequent complaints from retailers about aggressive panhandling and the homeless, the Downtown Visalia Alliance and local police officers met to come up with some solutions. Don Sharp, the president of the Downtown Visalia Alliance, said, “It’s a growing problem and we have to try and alleviate it.”
The problem is the growing number of panhandlers coming into stores and restaurants to use the facilities and asking customers for money. A counter person at Baskin Robbins, who has worked there for a year, deals with the problem daily. “They come in at night around 8 p.m. sometimes to bathe in the bathrooms and then harass the customers.”
Steve Gonzales, who owns Fatte Albert’s Pizza Company, said that the city of Visalia is trying, but the issue is not being managed consistently. He will see more police and security guards and the panhandlers will leave, then the cycle starts all over again. His wife, when walking with their four children, does not feel comfortable going past all the homeless to get to their restaurant. “I wonder how many other families feel the same,” said Gonzales.
Gonzales has owned his pizzeria in Hanford for seven-and-a-half years and never had this problem.
A cashier at Pacific Treasures said she has seen an increase in the homeless over the last few months. She has been asked several times for money but usually does not give. One time, she was approached by the same person while serving coffee at her church and then again while working at Pacific Treasures. He was using different excuses about why he was homeless, so she knew he was just making up stories.
Gonzales echoed her sentiments. “I don’t know what to call them because they don’t fit the description of homeless. It looks like they have somewhere to sleep and come here to hang out, get high and ask for money.”
Sharp added that, “It is especially bad around Garden Street Park, but it is a public park so there is nothing you can do about it unless they do something illegal. The police can ticket them but they don’t have a permanent address to send the ticket to. It’s really a frustrating mess and getting worse.”
According to a report made by city staff, there were 450 calls for a patrol officer to deal with a transient problem from July to December 2012. In the first six months of 2013, the calls for service have increased to 533.
Solutions range from the obvious to the creative. The Visalia Rescue Mission (VRM) is working alongside the city to end aggressive panhandling and reduce the number of homeless. The VRM is updating their “Connect Cards” that people should hand out instead of cash. These cards have all the information a homeless person would need. They list all the services Visalia provides and where to get three meals a day. “There is no reason anyone in Tulare County should go hungry,” said Jessica Cavale, director of development. “The VRM serves three meals a day, 365 days a year with sandwiches available in between. We strongly advocate against panhandling and discourage anyone from giving money. If you want to buy somebody a hamburger fine, just don’t hand over money.”
Lt. Steven Phillips, who covers the Oval and Downtown area, wants the public to know that, “I would prefer money be given to a designated and reputable charity (eg. Visalia Rescue Mission, His Kitchen). This way they don’t chance supporting a drug or alcohol habit. You just don’t know. It is always best to send the money where you know it will used in their best interest. Give money to a program with structure; where the money will be truly used to help someone to get off the streets.”
Cavale explained that some of the panhandlers are not homeless and many of them are not even from our area. Some are professional panhandlers that are bused in from other cities, collect money, pool it at the end of the day, and go back home.
Lt. Phillips explained that homelessness and professional panhandling are two different issues. There are the true homeless, and then there are the ones with homes that beg for a living. It is hard to know the difference. Homeless are less aggressive and pitiful. Panhandling is aggressive and very manipulative with grand stories.
Other popular areas in Visalia targeted by aggressive panhandlers are the Dollar Tree and Grocery Outlet parking lot, Ross and Kohl’s parking lot, and Mary’s Vineyard.
Everyone agreed that as long as we continue to support begging, begging will continue and it will get worse.
Another solution the VRM will be implementing at the end of October, with the help of city staff, is a program to confront the problem of shopping carts throughout the city. The homeless will be offered a locked storage bin to put their belongings instead of pushing them around town. The shopping cart will then be returned to the store where it belongs.
The Downtown Visalia Alliance had more obvious solutions, such as hiring another security guard just to stand in Garden Street Plaza and the adjoining parking structure to keep homeless and panhandlers moving. A security guard cannot make an arrest, but their presence discourages loitering and lets families enjoy the fountain without being harassed. Downtown already has security guards and two police officers, but they cover an area that extending from the Oval to downtown that encompasses some 70 blocks.
Police officers also move along the homeless who try to sleep on the benches when Garden Street Plaza closes at 10:30pm.
Sharp and the Downtown Alliance plan on being very proactive about the problem. “We’ve worked too long and too hard to make downtown the positive place it is and will throw every legal means possible to deal with it. We aren’t going to let the homeless change that.”
Aidina Escarsega, owner of The Clay Café, said, “These past few months I have seen an increase of panhandling, bicycles and skateboarding on the sidewalks, especially in the Garden Plaza area of downtown. The police and security are boosting efforts to help with the problem. I have seen a lot of improvement these past two weeks. I think if we can all work together, we can keep this a nice area for families and couples to visit. Downtown Merchants and the public can help by calling security when necessary to report any wrong doing.