In Paso Robles shopping centers, the holiday cheer and hallelujahs for rain are coming alongside more complaints about aggressive solicitors.
A new chapter banning aggressive solicitation has been added to the city’s municipal code. In response to an increase in phone calls and complaints in recent years, a report authored by Police Chief Robert Burton stated that “an increase in aggressive solicitation throughout the City has become extremely disturbing and disruptive to residents and businesses, and has contributed not only to the loss of access to and enjoyment of public places, but also to an enhanced sense of fear, intimidation and disorder.”
While solicitation is an umbrella term—including everything from door-to-door candy bar slingers to gospel proselytizers, clipboard-toting signature gatherers to Salvation Army bell-ringers—the new language is inherently aimed at panhandlers. For many who fly signs at shopping center corners, asking for work, food, or money, the new rules will make life a little bit more difficult.
“Due to my family’s economic situation, I do rely on that for my income. I do not ask for a hand-out, as you call it; my sign specifically asks for work,” resident Beatrice Martinez told the council on Dec. 4.
Martinez and her husband Jeromie Dillon have been soliciting in Paso Robles for years and have been living in an RV during some of that time. Dillon has been around long enough that he’s formed relationships with many of the folks soliciting in the area, and says some work hard to self regulate. The problems that have led to the police department drafting the new rules stem from a few bad apples, Dillon told the council.
“It’s pretty much got out of hand, I know, but some of us are just trying to make it,” Dillon said.
Police Chief Burton told New Times that his department has been sensitive in balancing the needs of the complainants and the needs and constitutional rights of those the complaints are about.
“We are trying to respond to the needs of the community and make it safer for everybody, while still allowing for constitutionally protected activities,” Burton said.
The chief underscored that the department isn’t trying to target all panhandling; rather, it’s aiming to have the ability to address bad behavior or particular individuals who continually misbehave.
“They have a right as any American to have freedom of speech and engage in any of those activities,” Burton said. “In certain areas it’s not appropriate, but in other areas it’s more than welcome, and you’re allowed to do that.”
A handful of business owners along 24th Street and Niblick Road, the two areas that see frequent problems, spoke in support of the police department’s recommendations, listing various incidents they’ve witnessed. Martinez and Dillon also recognized that problems exist, telling New Times that there are people who are drunk when they arrive with their sign and who do pose a traffic risk.
The rules specifically focus on soliciting within 50 feet of an ATM and within 10 feet of an intersection corner. While most people agree on the need for boundaries around an ATM, banning sign-holding on a street corner draws more mixed responses.
A common practice involves standing at the exit of a major shopping center and soliciting for donations, food, or possible work from people leaving in their vehicles. Drivers stopped at a red light might offer something, and people on the corner can run over and get it. Now, individuals aren’t allowed to leave the sidewalk and approach the vehicles. The only legal way for a transaction to occur would be from a car legally parked.
What’s more, Martinez said, standing at spots more than 10 feet away from the corner may make motorists less likely to stop, and may mean encroaching onto private property.
“We use that for survival,” she said. “We don’t want to be a hindrance.”
The rules won’t hinder traditional evangelism.
-- Melody DeMeritt - former city council member, Morro Bay