City of Lakewood, ACLU working on panhandling ordinance amendments

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LAKEWOOD, Wash. – Lakewood lawmakers are taking another stab at addressing aggressive panhandlers.

The issue is how to uphold panhandlers’ free speech, while preserving residents’ freedom from harassment. The American Civil Liberties Union plans to work with Lakewood lawmakers to find the balance.

The state Supreme Court recently struck down portions of Lakewood’s ordinance, saying it infringed on free speech.

Lakewood Mayor Don Anderson said the issue is really about public safety.

But some people begging for money on freeway on-ramps worry they may go hungry if they are blocked by new legislation.

Pat Oswald said only a fraction of drivers pulling off I-5 onto Gravelly Lake Drive give him the time of day.

“They just know what they see,” he said.

Oswald said when the sun goes down, he sleeps in a culvert and he only panhandles to supplement his Social Security checks.

“I’m not here to make 100 bucks, people don’t make 100 bucks here,” he said.

“We’re not addressing the conduct of asking for money, it’s the conduct of harassing people or the conduct of disrupting traffic,” said Anderson.

Anderson said he and the City Council are working to amend the ordinance with language that doesn’t prohibit begging, but would keep people from walking into the street for money or harassing strangers.

“People disrupting traffic or accosting people in parking lots," he said. “Whether there’s a public safety or a personal safety issue involved, we’re trying to address that.”

“You have to be neutral in how the conduct is affected, or how the speech is affected,” said attorney Bill Block with the ACLU.

Block said the city needs to be careful how the ordinance’s amendments are written to make sure constitutionally protected speech isn’t infringed.

“We see significant issues remaining in the amendment and are very pleased that they have agreed to sit down and talk with us so we can find something that satisfies everyone,” said Block.

“It could kind of be disastrous,” Oswold said if the new amendments keep him from camping out for cash.

Oswald said he wants to remind people that behind his long hair and beard is a person who has as much right to pursue happiness as anyone else.

“Looks aren’t everything, babe,” he said. “Don’t judge a book by its cover. Roll down the window and say hi, you might get a smile back.”

The Lakewood City Council plans to work with the ACLU next month to address any remaining concerns before it votes on a plan.

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