Gateway: News

Rise in panhandling in Gig Harbor has city, police department searching for solutions

A man sits next to a sign offering to work for food outside of McDonald’s in Gig Harbor on Aug. 20.
A man sits next to a sign offering to work for food outside of McDonald’s in Gig Harbor on Aug. 20. jbessex@gateline.com

On an ever-growing list of hot-button topics for residents of Gig Harbor — particularly on social media — the increase in local panhandlers ranks near the top of the list.

A visit to the infamous Gig Harbor’s Most Wanted – Town Talk! Facebook page demonstrates a variety of views on the topic, though the majority lean toward the airing of complaints, pleas for a response from city officials and even plans to counter the panhandlers with signs of their own.

This topic is not new to Gig Harbor Police Chief Kelly Busey.

“I’m getting complaints daily. And other departments in the city are also,” Busey said. “We have seen an increase in panhandling.”

The city previously had an anti-panhandling ordinance, but city officials have told local law enforcement to stop enforcing it after similar ordinances have been found unconstitutional in nearby cities, City Administrator Ron Williams said.

Panhandling is seen as a protected first amendment right of free speech.

I’m getting complaints daily. And other departments in the city are also. We have seen an increase in panhandling.

Kelly Busey, Gig Harbor police chief

Busey said he has been watching the effect of ordinances in use by nearby cities that curb panhandling by focusing on associated safety issues, such as the distraction panhandlers and their signs pose at busy intersections and round-a-bouts and from unexpectedly slowed or stopped traffic from good Samaritans trying to help.

Other problems associated with panhandlers include littering, issues involving human waste and trespassing.

In fact, trespassing is one of the ways that Gig Harbor police officers can ask panhandlers to move on, if they’re standing on private property and the property owner wants them removed.

“In certain areas, at some round-a-bouts, we’ve carefully determined property boundaries,” Busey said. “It depends literally on where they’re standing. Our officers are fairly attuned to that.”

When contacting panhandlers, Busey said that GHPD officers do their best to offer services and resources and connect those looking for assistance with organizations that can help.

Giving money is just going to keep encouraging that behavior. That money is better spent at an efficient, legitimately-run organization.

Busey

A widespread concern for Gig Harbor citizens on social media is the presence of young children alongside parents or guardians who are panhandling.

Situations such as those can be tricky and difficult to handle, Busey said.

“When we’re talking about a school-age child during school hours, that’s when we’d intervene,” he said. “As long as there’s not a violation of an established law, it’s hard to intervene.”

For those in Gig Harbor looking to help the less fortunate, Busey advises finding an organization to donate to instead of handing money to panhandlers, which only treats a symptom instead of providing relief.

“Giving money is just going to keep encouraging that behavior. That money is better spent at an efficient, legitimately-run organization,” he said. “They should feel some compassion for that person (panhandling) and then research an appropriate social service organization that might be able to lend them a hand on a more permanent basis.”

Andrea Haffly: 253-358-4155, @gateway_andrea

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