The city of Seattle's proposed "aggressive panhandling" ordinance is an overreaction, writes guest columnist Bruce Patt. A better approach would be to increase the police presence downtown.
ON Dec. 16 I left my condo at 7 a.m., as usual, heading down Second for the Westlake Light Rail station. In the early morning drizzle a man from across the street yelled out for “a couple of bucks.” He crossed the street and started to walk with me, aggressively requesting money. I refused. He then turned, cursed at me and punched me. It happened in an instant, and then he was gone.
He left me with a missing front tooth and a jaw fractured in two places. I spent 24 hours in the hospital, in great pain. Following surgery, I left the hospital with two titanium plates holding one fracture in place and an intense brace and rubber-band contraption designed to hold my jaw immobile. The wiring and bands were finally removed in mid-February.
Why this detailed summary? This experience offers me a unique vantage point to discuss Seattle City Councilmember Tim Burgess’s proposed “aggressive panhandling” ordinance under consideration by the City Council. I see this proposal as a license to harass the homeless, not a solution to street crime or to concerns about public safety. How would this ordinance have prevented my assault?
My wife and I have lived in Lower Queen Anne and Belltown for nearly 20 years. We walk everywhere and, in all honesty, this was my first experience with “aggressive panhandling.” We have always felt — and still do, frankly — quite safe on the streets of downtown Seattle. I’ll admit to being more wary but I still make the daily 7 a.m. trek from Belltown to Westlake.
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If we want to get serious about safety measures — as opposed to blatant harassment — what we need is assigned beat cops, “feet on the street.” If I took you on a tour of my neighborhood, you would witness assorted drug deals and other acts that would not be allowed to fester if we had a viable street presence from our police force.
It disturbs me that we make the homeless and destitute objects of our disdain. I believe we are conflating a nuisance factor and our own discomfort, resulting in a perception of threat to our personal safety. This ordinance would further legitimize our discomfort by criminalizing that which makes us uncomfortable. Will such an ordinance really make you — or me — safer? I seriously doubt it.
In truth, I am considerably more harassed by aggressive paid canvassers soliciting donations for environmental and other organizations in the central-business core. I cannot count the times I have been touched, followed, insulted or had my passage blocked by them. But I have to wonder, how many $50 infraction tickets will be written to canvassers. After all, it’s a good cause. They are groomed and don’t make us uncomfortable.
I have thought deeply about Burgess’s ordinance over the last 10 weeks. Some might say that I have good reason to succumb to fear and blame. Instead, as an educator in a highly diverse school, I have used this experience as a teaching moment.
I have gone into classrooms to talk with students about my assault. Some students have asked if he was homeless. Some asked why I didn’t hit him back. I had one luminous conversation with a fourth-grader about the role of forgiveness.
I have told these students that I won’t succumb to anger and fear. I ask Burgess and our other council members to think about what we want our children to learn. Please, do not enact this ill-conceived ordinance.
Bruce J. Patt is a site-based professional-development coach at South Shore K-8 in Seattle.