Proposition M - Aggressive Panhandling Ban

Voter Guide
November 1, 2003
This measure appeared on the November 2003 San Francisco ballot.

 

What it does

Proposition M would ban panhandling near ATMs, on median strips, near check cashing outlets, on public transportation, and in parking lots. It would ban “aggressive” panhandling in all other public spaces. The police would be required to issue a warning before issuing a citation which would then require the recipient to either pay a fine or attend mental health and substance abuse screening and assessment. After three convictions in a year, an infractor could be sent to jail for three months or sentenced to community service. Both the banning of certain types of panhandling and the creation of a program to divert offenders into the public health system are new.

Why it is on the ballot

There is already a law on the books that bans panhandling, whether aggressive or not. But that law has been ruled unconstitutional, so it cannot be enforced. Prop. M removes the old language from the Police Code and replaces it with new language.

Pros

Proponents state:

  • Many of our public spaces are failing. If we want to restore the ability of people to gather in public, we have to decide which behaviors are acceptable and which are not. This law makes a good attempt to draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable ways of asking for money
  • Prop. M is a progressive reform of the Police Code that opens up the option of diverting offenders to a public health screening
  • Prop. M’s language reasonably defines aggressive panhandling, as tightly as the age-old definition of “battery” (offensive touching without the person’s consent). It’s not enough for someone who just doesn’t like seeing homeless people to claim that they feel “unsafe”

Cons

Opponents state:

  • This measure opens the door to “criminalizing homelessness.” Because the definitions of “aggressive behavior” are so subjective, anyone who simply doesn’t like to see poor people or begging may be able to claim that they are made to feel “unsafe,” and thus trigger a police intervention
  • This measure will run afoul of free speech protections by unduly restricting the rights of people to ask for money in public spaces
  • The public health diversion program will cost money, and this measure does nothing to fund it

SPUR's analysis

Prop. M needs to be analyzed in the context of other attempts to enforce standards of civil behavior in public spaces. Over the last several decades, social norms around how to act in public spaces—streets, parks, bus stations, libraries—have changed. There is no longer a consensus about what is acceptable behavior and what is not. But most people believe intuitively that something isn’t working.

At SPUR we think about the problem this way: if any one user group comes to dominate a space, so that other groups of people no longer feel comfortable being there, then the space isn’t working. The goal is to have public spaces that people from different walks of life can occupy at the same time. In a society so divided by class, age, race, ethnicity and all the other constituents of identity, it is critical that there be a public realm in which people can be around each other, get used to the fact that people are different, and learn how to get along.

But one hazard of public space is that people using that space can still make each other uncomfortable. Some behavior we all agree is problematic: drug dealing, playing music so loud that no one else can talk, or urinating on the sidewalk. Other kinds of behavior make only some people uncomfortable, the classic example is the presence of dogs.

So it is a great mistake to focus solely on the presence of homeless people as the main quality of life issue in public space. All kinds of people can happily coexist, including the homeless and the housed, so long as they are acting in ways that respect each other. The problem is how to define exactly what behaviors are acceptable and what behaviors are not.

Prop. M first attempts to define one set of behaviors as unacceptable. It asserts that aggressively asking for money is not all right, and tries to define exactly what constitutes “aggressive” behavior.

It says that it is illegal to ask for money in any way, at any time within 20 feet of an ATM, from people driving a car, on a public transit vehicle, or in a parking lot. In all other public spaces, it says that “aggressive solicitation” is illegal and defines this term as:

  • conduct that is intended or likely to cause a reasonable person to fear bodily harm or loss of property, physical contact, or otherwise be intimidated into giving money
  • intentionally touching another person without consent in the course of soliciting
  • intentionally blocking safe passage of a pedestrian or vehicle
  • using violent or threatening gestures
  • continuing to solicit after a negative response
  • following a person while soliciting

The major question we face as voters, which determines whether you should vote yes or no on Prop. M, is whether or not the authors correctly drew the line between acceptable and unacceptable behavior.

The measure also sets up an enforcement system. Prop. M is located within the Police Code, so it changes the way the police are supposed to deal with panhandlers. Under Prop. M, the police would be required to warn a person about this law before citing or arresting that person. (This requirement does not exist today.)

Prop. M also expands the options for what the police are allowed to do with a person they pick up for aggressive panhandling. Currently, an officer has three enforcement options when a homeless person is arrested for violating a law: issue a fine (which the person has no money to pay); give them community service; or put them in jail. Prop. M. creates a fourth option, diverting the infractor to substance dependency and mental health screening at the Department of Public Health. The District Attorney has the authority to decide which set of penalties to impose, depending on what exactly the person has done and depending on the DA’s assessment of their needs. The core idea here, and what is new in the enforcement options provided by this ordinance, is to allow the cops to divert quality of life offenders to a public health screening. Creating the program within the public health system to process these diversions will cost money, but it’s widely regarded as a good idea.

It’s very hard to define civil behavior, and SPUR might have written this measure a little more narrowly, but on the whole it makes an admirable attempt to draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable behavior. While we are all agreed that the panhandling problem has its roots in the city’s broader housing crisis, inequality of wealth in our society, and a host of other underlying causes, it is also true that San Francisco has to be able to keep its public realm in good working order if the city is going to work as an urban place. San Francisco puts more money per capita into programs for the homeless than almost any other city in the country; the other side of this social compact is that we have to start being willing to expect things of panhandlers. Prop. M makes a small step in that direction. This measure actually makes a major step toward decriminalizing homelessness by setting up a way to send people into the public health system instead of to jail.

SPUR recommends a "Yes" vote on Prop. M.