Spruce up parks and vagrant problem worsens

On Tuesday I read in my copy of The Daily Sentinel that “city officials” are busily looking into restoring public desire to utilize Whitman Park. The park was variously identified as “homeless” and “bum” park. Not true. It has a home and seems to be doing its job; however, it has acquired an unfortunate symbiotic relationship with the permanent drifter population.

Like those officials, I think the park can be rehabbed; a shave and haircut followed by a good hosing off would set the old fellow right as rain. I just disagree on how that should be done.

For some time Whitman has had issues with folks who want to make their way through life more leisurely than the rest of us. When I was in college working at Mayflower Moving in the summer, we would eat lunch over there and it wasn’t too bad.

I will admit that my colleagues and I, who spent most of our day moving freezers and pianos, were not quite as open to panhandling from the robustly unemployed as some.

There’s no question that over the last five to seven years there has been a shift in the quantity and quality of downtown and park itinerants. One sees more active young people in the mix, which is generally sad and increasingly troubling from a public safety standpoint.

The Downtown Development Association director reportedly feels that having more events in the park, which he anticipates will draw the general public to the area, will somehow alleviate the problem.

There are several issues with this approach; the first is that there is already too much free entertainment in the park – that’s the problem.

Secondly, why would a group of people, who at least partially sustain themselves from panhandling, want to leave an area that was expected to have an influx of spare-change-bearing citizenry?

Thirdly, if establishing a more pleasant environment is the goal, why would anybody leave? Just because you wrangle spare change for a living doesn’t mean you don’t appreciate a free folk music concert now and then.

There are a raft of other concerns but frankly, it’s like shooting big fish in a small barrel and at some point it’s just not sporting.

The reception many are likely to get during these events is probably similar to what the Downtown Development Association director received while being photographed for the newspaper story. As near as I can tell, he was trying to do everything possible to blend in; yet there were still hoots from the leisure class.

As much as it pains me to say, the solution is probably more holistic and requires a convergence of solutions.

The first is to continue the fight with the ACLU over the constitutionality of the city’s newly adopted aggressive panhandling ordinance, which I give it credit for passing.

Secondly, there are other law enforcement remedies available, such as exercising enhanced attention to existing traffic laws that proscribe interfering with traffic, soliciting from lane medians and generally creating a traffic hazard.

If necessary, appropriate legal summonses could be issued, which is a legitimate police contact that would necessitate the production of identification. Failure to comply with the terms of the summons could result in a brief custodial detention, during which a fingerprint record could be obtained and processed through the Automated Fingerprint Identification System to see if some other jurisdiction had some sort of interest in the individual. Always nice to know whom you’re dealing with in these matters.

Thirdly, actually encourage business development downtown.

I think we’re somewhere amongst the third downtown development head who thinks that residential loft development in the business district is some kind of panacea.

I would disagree by pointing out a couple of things: This isn’t Portland and it’s not 1995.

What’s next, grunge rock, Nirvana cover bands and flannel shirts? This idea isn’t just old; it’s practically yuppie archaeology and a substantial misdirection for local efforts.

More helpful would be a tax-friendly enterprise zone beyond what presently exists, the removal of or adjustment of parking meters to allow more time for shopping prior to triggering substantial fines and a regular, visible, nonmotorized law enforcement presence at least Thursday through Saturday.

Just an idea, but let’s allow cops to be cops and businesses to compete fairly with strip malls, then maybe we’ll reclaim downtown.

Rick Wagner writes about politics on his blog The War on Wrong.

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