The Gig Harbor City Council passed a new ordinance at Monday night’s meeting that aims to curb vehicle collisions that come when drivers stop to give to panhandlers money or other items.
The new Traffic Safety Ordinance will make it unlawful for drivers to interact with pedestrians or exchange money or goods on certain roadways within city limits.
Prohibited roadways include roads within 200 feet of a roundabout, within 200 feet of an overpass or within 500 feet of the Olympic Drive and Point Fosdick Drive intersection, said Gig Harbor Police Chief Kelly Busey.
Anyone found guilty of violating the new ordinance will be charged with a misdemeanor. Those charged with a misdemeanor can be held in jail for up to 90 days or fined $1,000.
“This is not truly about panhandlers and more about public safety,” Busey said. “One-third of our collisions happen near roundabouts.”
Anyone who chooses to panhandle is protected under the First Amendment along with those who wish to collect money or goods such as nonprofit organizations, event sign-holders and more, Busey said.
The second public reading of the ordinance came during Monday’s meeting, and it will be effective beginning in December.
So far this year, 34 percent of crashes in Gig Harbor happened near or on roundabouts or within 500 feet of the Olympic Drive and Point Fosdick intersection, according to Gig Harbor Police Department records.
Busey and his officers have been trying to find ways to deal with panhandlers and handle complaints regarding the homeless population since the summer.
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.
“Being homeless is not a crime,” Busey said. “And not everyone who is homeless is homeless because they are a criminal. This is a way to help public safety. If people stop their cars on these busy roads to hand out goods, it causes accidents.”
The new ordinance could potentially have an effect on those holding signs asking for food or cash assistance, according to officials at The Tacoma Rescue Mission.
“Part of the Gig Harbor Police Department’s job is to look out for public safety,” said Noah Baskett, the nonprofit’s spokesman. “It’s up to the people of Gig Harbor to decide what policy to put in place.”
When it comes to panhandlers asking for money on the street, people should instead give the person a sack lunch or a gift certificate, Baskett recommends.
But this ordinance would ban even that, he said.
“The population we serve primarily are people who are overlooked or forgotten,” Baskett said. “We have a lot of supporters in Gig Harbor that are really wrestling with how to address this growing issue in their community. Ultimately, The Rescue Mission wants to be a help to see what a solution would look like in Gig Harbor.”