Business owners fed up with panhandling

jsmith@mercedsunstar.comOctober 9, 2012 

Merced's downtown business community continues to ask for help with panhandlers, publicly intoxicated homeless people and the mentally unstable.

"I would describe the problem as completely unchecked," said Melissa Eisner, co-owner of Coffee Bandits on Main Street. "It affects me as a business owner when I'm working, and they come here and harass my customers, my employees or me."

In response to the issue, the economic development department recently held a meeting with business owners to discuss possible solutions. As a result, a citizen task force was formed to work with city officials. (STORY CONTINUES AFTER VIDEO)

The six-member task force's first meeting is still a few weeks away, but city officials are already hoping some feasible strategies will result from assembling the group, which is primarily composed of Merced business owners.

Frank Quintero, the city's economic development director, said panhandling negatively impacts business downtown.

"There is an issue with panhandling in downtown Merced, which is affecting consumer confidence," Quintero said. "The key thing is that people have to stop giving. And if people want to give to help panhandlers, they have to give to a program that serves them."

The idea of boycotting panhandlers has been embraced by some residents.

Downtown Merced has "professional beggars," said Barry Peiffer, owner of the Merced Antique Mall on Main Street. "To stop the problem, people have got to stop giving. I don't believe the majority of panhandlers are really down and out."

"When I first got down here, I did (give) a little bit," said Tom Price, editor and publisher of the Downtown Life Magazine. "Then I'd see them four or five times a day. It does frustrate you a little bit."

Many people downtown give money freely when asked, according to a panhandler who called himself Terrance.

"It's a real good living," he said. "You got good people right here that just give. Depending on the day of the month. Friday, Saturday it's good."

Terrance said he makes about $500 to $600 a month, panhandling about two days a week. He said he uses the money to feed his four kids, and pay rent on a house in downtown Merced.

"You know, I'm trying to provide for my family," he said. "We just need assistance to get food. Give us more work, and we won't have to do it."

Panhandling can intimidate people, but it's not illegal. Asking for money is protected as free speech.

"We understand that the businesses owners have to run businesses," said Lt. Tom Trindad. "But the homeless folks have just as much a right to enjoy the public space as we do."

Cities have been able to put some restrictions on panhandling. In Merced it's against the law if done aggressively, near an ATM or after sunset.

However, enforcing such laws is difficult. The Police Department only has between eight and 11 officers available to respond to calls at any one time, Trindad said.

"We're not going to arrest our way out of this problem," he said. "We can't be out here 24-7. We just don't have the resources."

The first citizen task force meeting is scheduled for November.

The city and the task force plan to implement an educational campaign in coming months, encouraging people to give to community charities rather than to panhandlers.

"The more businesses come in and are affected by these factors, the more people are becoming vocal," said Price, who volunteered to be on the citizen's task force. "But I don't think anyone has the answers."

The economic development department plans to hold another meeting with downtown business owners in December.

Notifications about the meeting will be mailed to businesses owners in the improvement district, which is bordered by G and V streets, the Southern Pacific railroad tracks and 20th street.

Sun-Star staff writer Joshua Emerson Smith can be reached at jsmith@mercedsunstar.com or (209) 385-2486.

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