What can be done about homelessness and panhandling? An FAQ

What can be done about homelessness and panhandling? An FAQ
Posted on 09/07/2017
Homelessness, transients and panhandling are chronic issues facing every city in California and throughout the nation, bringing human misery as well as crime and blight. It is a multi-faceted problem with no easy solutions. The following Frequently Asked Questions addresses some of the most common concerns, legal issues, what cities can and can't do, what is being done and how you can help.

Q: Why doesn’t the City pass a law outlawing panhandling?

A: Numerous court cases have determined that panhandling is a free speech right, protected by the first amendment. Ordinances against general panhandling in many cities have been struck down and cities held financially liable for damages. In 2011 the Redlands City Council passed an ordinance outlawing aggressive panhandling. However, even some ordinances prohibiting aggressive panhandling are under challenge if they do not properly focus on conduct rather than the status of the person and show a reasonable relationship between the prohibition and the conduct being regulated. Learn more about the City's aggressive panhandling ordinance here: http://www.sterlingcodifiers.com/codebook/index.php?book_id=550

Q: Can the police enforce laws against panhandling in specific locations such as downtown, freeway on- and off-ramps, medians, store fronts, banks and ATMs?

A: The City’s ordinances do prohibit panhandling in some specific areas as a matter of public safety, consistent with court rulings. Those areas include banks, ATMs, medians and soliciting drivers entering or exiting their vehicles in a parking lot. State vehicle code also prohibits soliciting on freeway on- and off-ramps. Panhandling downtown, other than aggressive panhandling, is a constitutionally protected right.

Q: The City has an anti-camping ordinance? Why are the homeless allowed to set up tent camps alongside roads, trails and freeway off-ramps, in parks, vacant lots and in areas such as the Santa Ana River Wash?

A: Court rulings have held that in enforcing camping ordinances, cities must be able to identify that there is an available place to sleep before issuing citations. If a bed is available and the person is unwilling to accept it, officers may cite them. Officers may require violators to move off public property even if they can’t cite them. This can be a lengthy process. If they have a lot of property federal rulings require officers give them the opportunity to take it with them.   When on private property, officers need the property owners to make the decision to have transients removed and cover costs of cleanup. In areas under other agency jurisdiction (such as Cal Trans, Bureau of Land Management and others) officers need approval from those agencies. Learn more about the City's camping ordinance here: http://www.sterlingcodifiers.com/codebook/index.php?book_id=550

Q: Why does it take so long to eliminate homeless encampments once they are reported?

A: Police have limited resources and prioritize all calls for service and projects. Case law requires officers to give transients due process to remove their property. That includes posting the property and giving them time to remove it. If police have to remove the property they are bound by found property laws, requiring officers to collect, inventory and hold the property securely for 90 days. Cities have been held liable for damages when they fail to comply with the court’s due process requirements.


Q: Why aren’t transients arrested for stealing shopping carts?

A: If a store is willing to press charges police can arrest/cite for petty theft, if officers can prove the person stole the shopping cart. Frequently the businesses prefer to just get their cart back without pressing charges because of the time it takes to file a report, send people to court etc. City ordinance also allows the City to remove and store abandoned shopping carts at the cart owner’s expense. Many transients are now using strollers or rolling suitcases as they cannot be forced to give up their conveyance when it is their property.

Q: What is the role of state legislation in increasing the homeless population?

A: State legislation and federal court rulings, especially AB 109 and Propositions 47 and 57, have exacerbated some of the problems communities face associated with homelessness through early release of prisoners and changes in how individuals may be held accountable for certain “low-level” crimes. While the laws are promoted as public safety measures, often people are being released into communities without rehabilitation or employment. Parolees are released back to the county where their offense was committed but without supervision they are free to move to other areas. Because legislation also pushes responsibility for incarceration down to the county facilities, county jails already at capacity have ceased accepting or holding individuals in custody for many “low-level” and nuisance crimes such as burglary, theft and vandalism. The Legislature has yet to take measures to address problems associated with these laws. 

Q: What is the role of social service agencies in attracting the homeless to Redlands?

A: Transients regularly tell police they come to Redlands because of the available services and relative safety of the community. While transients are attracted by short-term services, there are few long-term solutions available to get the homeless into permanent housing or stable employment.

Q: Can’t the City use its zoning powers to prohibit the kinds of social service agencies that have attracted the homeless to the City and especially to the downtown?

A: Yes, the City’s police powers with respect to zoning are quite broad. Zoning changes may be used to determine categories of uses in specified areas, however, consideration must be given that zoning is not used to discriminate solely based on the type of people served. Any zoning change would be a policy matter for the Council to consider and review.

Q: Can the City make it illegal to give money or food to the homeless?

A: The City may regulate by ordinance where food is distributed in certain circumstances, but cannot make it illegal to give money.

Q: I see homeless people breaking the law (buying, selling, using drugs; vandalizing property or defecating; aggressively panhandling) but when I report it the police don’t do anything.  

A: Redlands Police will always respond and hold people accountable when they are breaking the law. However, every call is prioritized and responded to based on that priority.  In addition, while police can make felony arrests based on witness statements, evidence and investigation, the law requires that an officer witness a misdemeanor before issuing a citation. Citizens may make a Citizen’s Arrest based on illegal behavior they observe, but many residents are unwilling to do so. In such cases, in the absence of an outstanding warrant or other circumstance officers may only counsel the individuals regarding the law.

Q: Is the problem a shortage of police officers?

A: We can always benefit from more police officers, and the City has added officers to the department in each of the past several years. However, we will never arrest our way out of this problem.

Q: Why is the problem so much worse in Redlands? Other cities don’t have this problem. Is it because those cities have tougher laws? Better enforcement?

A: In frequent discussions with chiefs of police and other law enforcement in the area and throughout the state, we have not found a city that has done anything more substantive than what Redlands is doing. Climate, the availability of services and the relative safety of the community all play a part in attracting transients to Redlands; however, every city in San Bernardino County is seeing increases in homelessness. 

Q: Are other cities busing their transients to Redlands? Why don’t we put the transients on a bus and send them back?

A: We are in regular communication with the chiefs of all the surrounding agencies and have no reason to believe other cities are busing transients who have no connection to Redlands into the City. The Redlands Police Department has received funding from Family Service Association which is used to provide transportation to individuals who wish to go to another City or state. Individuals cannot be forced to leave against their will and RPD will provide transportation resources only when we can verify that there are friends or family at the destination who are willing to be responsible for those individuals. The department’s homeless liaison officers go to great effort to reunite individuals with family whenever possible. No City funds are expended on transportation.

Q: What mental health services are available for those who are homeless because of mental illness or addiction? Why can’t the homeless be forced to take their medications or undergo treatment?

A: Services are available to those who want them, but connecting services with those who need them is a difficult and often lengthy process. Personnel from the County Department of Behavioral Health ride with RPD officers once a month to connect with transients with mental illness and get them into the system. Individuals cannot be forced to accept treatment unless it can be demonstrated for the courts that the person cannot care for themselves.

Q: What can Redlands residents do to address the problem of homelessness?

A: Redlands participates in the Positive Change, Not Spare Change program. Residents are asked not to provide money or any other goods of value directly to panhandlers, which only encourages more panhandlers, many of whom are not homeless or in need. Residents who wish to contribute to help the homeless are asked to give to established service providers.

Residents are also encouraged to report all suspicious or illegal behavior to police immediately and provide police with as complete and accurate a description as possible. This information assists the police in determining how to best deploy resources. Residents should also be willing to press charges when they witness low-level offenses so that those responsible will be held accountable.

Business owners and managers should work with the Police Department to implement “target hardening” strategies to secure their businesses against many of the issues associated with transients. Target hardening strategies can include locking trash bins, lighting and gates.

Programs and resources the City has put in place:
  • Redlands Police Department Homeless Liaison team and Downtown Officers – Develop and maintain a relationship with the local transient population and a visible presence in areas targeted by panhandlers. This serves both as a deterrent to illegal behavior and an effort to provide the homeless with necessary services and long-term solutions, including permanent or long-term housing and mental health care.
  • Dedicated downtown parks worker for the State Street area as well as Civic Center, Mall, Orange and Gateway freeway frontage. Maintains the area and reports issues to the police.
  • Regularly scheduled sweeping and power washing on State Street, three days a week.
  • Dedicated electric sidewalk sweeper was purchased last year to conduct regular sweeping in the downtown.
  • Two attendants dedicated to the downtown area are hired/contracted to report issues created by transients and loitering.
  • $4.2 million City investment in downtown since 2007 with additional projects underway.



Updated Sept. 7, 2017