I received the letter from the Davis Police Department about the same time I opened The Davis Enterprise to see the front-page headline “No handouts for homeless on street — New stakeholder group looks to curb aggressive panhandling” above Dave Ryan’s byline.
The letter begins: “The Davis Police Department has received numerous complaints regarding illegal/undesirable behavior occurring in Cedar Park, which is in your neighborhood.”
Ryan’s story begins: “Don’t give a handout to the homeless on the street,” and continues: “That’s going to be the message of a new group made up of city representatives, social service providers, business organizations and faith-based groups beginning to tackle the problem of homelessness and increased panhandling in Davis, according to a city staff report.”
The two items are not unrelated.
The police letter, from Assistant Chief Darren Pytel, notes that “Although the Police Department is able to take enforcement action regarding illegal behavior, enforcement action generally leads to short-term, rather than long-term, changes. A better approach is to make structural/environmental changes to promote healthy and desirable activities at the park, rather than maintain a physical environment where crime or undesirable behavior can easily occur.”
Ryan’s Enterprise front-pager asks: “Why not give on the street?” and answers the question with “Because that’s money that could have been given to a program that helps the homeless in ways a street handout could never do, and it will deter individuals from coming to Davis for ‘easy money’ from generous and well-meaning citizens,” according to the staff report.
The police response to the “illegal/undersirable” behavior in Cedar Park is to propose a number of changes: “1) Remove and not replace the picnic table near the front of the park; 2) Remove all benches from the park; 3) Remove the horseshoe pit and its separate fence at the rear of the park; 4) Remove the BBQ pit; 5) Cut the bushes against the fence on the north side of the park; 6) Remove lower branches on trees in the park; and 7) Close the park to public use from 9 p.m. to 7 a.m.”
The last item, closing the park to the public at night, is perhaps the best proposal, but unless there is consistent enforcement, it’s likely to be mostly ignored by those it targets.
Cedar Park is a small but beautiful neighborhood park that has been enjoyed by many families — mine included — for years. It has few bells and whistles, but is a centrally located gathering spot with a decent play structure and a swing set that most kids seem to greatly enjoy.
While it’s relatively “safe” in the daytime, it can get downright nasty at night. Those living along the street that hosts Cedar Park have been putting up with bad behavior far too long.
Whether removing tables, benches and pits designed for barbecuing and horseshoes will solve the problem remains to be seen, but the current situation should not be tolerated.
As for the stakeholders who fear that the citizens of this town might be developing a reputation for being too “generous” or “well-meaning,” I say that’s a reputation we should treasure.
Yes, aggressive panhandling can make us uncomfortable, perhaps partly because so many of us have so much, and parting with a few dollars is never going to hurt us in any meaningful way.
It’s up to each of us to decide for ourselves if we want to give, when we want to give, how much we want to give and to whom we want to give.
No group of “stakeholders,” not matter how well-meaning or well-connected, should ever rob us of the singular grace and compelling human connection that sometimes occurs when we encounter those whose daily struggles are far greater than our own.
“For I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; a stranger and you welcomed me; naked and you clothed me; ill and you cared for me; in prison and you visited me. Whatsoever you did for the least of my brothers, that you did unto me.” (Matthew 25).
— Reach Bob Dunning at firstname.lastname@example.org