Our Voice: Panhandler ordinances need to be thought out

As communities grow and prosper, they also develop issues once seen as only big-city problems.

In the Tri-Cities, that is becoming increasingly apparent with the proliferation of panhandlers.

We had a couple of long-time fixtures who staked out claims around town, but the number of highly visible panhandlers has grown rapidly in the past year or two at busy intersections and parking lot exits.

Cities are trying to figure out how to control the problem, which they say causes drivers to be distracted and can lead to accidents, among other problems.

Some drivers not accustomed to panhandlers get a little panicky when passing people holding cardboard signs and cups to collect cash.

Richland is working on an ordinance now. Kennewick and Pasco already have laws in place, but they vary greatly in their scope.

The issue is fraught with pitfalls.

Panhandling ordinances are notoriously difficult to enforce. For the most part, panhandlers here still have a small-town vibe and are more of a nuisance or annoyance to some rather than any kind of real threat. Police often have higher priorities to contend with.

And just what is defined as panhandling? Does it include the Girl Scouts who preciously pester you as you enter and exit the grocery store during cookie season? Or the youth sports groups hawking Krispy Kreme donuts by the dozen at busy intersections? And let’s not forget the car washes sure to start popping up with warmer weather. Those kids and parents are waving posters at drivers from street corners. How is that different than someone who may look a little more disheveled holding a ratty piece of cardboard asking for a handout?

Both are distractions to be sure, but some may be more empathetic than adults who advertise that they have hit hard times and see their best option as begging.

Obviously there are places where panhandling and fundraising of any type should probably be banned for safety. Freeway off-ramps, ATMs and transit stops are some examples.

From there it gets trickier. Depending on how a city crafts its panhandling ordinance, Girl Scouts could end up being banned from soliciting cookie sales in high traffic areas. And that would surely cause some outrage, but that may be the only fair solution.

Panhandling laws have faced legal challenges in other jurisdictions. Creating one that is reasonable is a complex task the city of Richland must now navigate carefully.