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Reining in panhandlers

Panhandlers will find fewer places to raise money next week when a new ordinance takes effect banning solicitation at busy intersections in Medford.

The city ordinance, which becomes law Jan. 1, could cost violators a jail sentence of up to one year and a fine of up to $1,000.

The new law doesn't sit well with the homeless who hold up cards asking for money at major intersections throughout the city.

"Some people will still do it and try to get away with it," said Ginger Cramer, who was asking for money Monday at the Interstate 5 interchange at Barnett Road. "If they spend a couple nights in jail, they figure they'll just get a free meal."

Medford police plan to educate panhandlers about the new law, hoping to avoid enforcing the stiffer penalties.

"Our goal is to use the arrest as the absolute last resort," said Medford Police Chief Randy Schoen. "Our whole goal is to change the behavior."

Schoen said most of the homeless who solicit don't have the money to pay the fine, so he hopes to change the ordinance passed by the Medford City Council in November.

He said the amended law would likely have a maximum 30 days in jail and a fine that wouldn't exceed $500, an amount that Schoen concedes is still beyond the means of most homeless people.

"The goal is to stop the behavior, not to create a debt they can never cover," he said.

Schoen said most courts aren't likely to levy the maximum jail sentence or fine.

Panhandling isn't strictly forbidden within Medford. The new ordinance prohibits solicitation at intersections with traffic signals, within 50 feet of an automatic teller machine or in many public areas.

A card will be passed out to panhandlers describing the new law and offering a list of phone numbers of organizations they can turn to for help. Schoen said signs will be posted at various locations in the city during January warning of the new ordinance.

The law also limits the type of panhandling, particularly if a request for money has already been denied or if it is done in a threatening or intimidating manner.

The city of Salem is considering passing some version of the Medford law to curb panhandling there.

Schoen said Medford is also looking at a new Roseburg law that tickets motorists who give money to panhandlers.

Many of the panhandlers use the money for drugs or alcohol, said Schoen, who recommends that local people who want to help the homeless donate to local charities and shelters.

Many local panhandlers have run afoul of the law on dozens of occasions, said Schoen.

Some of the panhandlers use ruses to elicit sympathy, he said. One man rides a bike to panhandle, then takes out crutches to use as a prop. When he takes a break, he hands the crutches to his girlfriend.

Cramer, who lives with friends and out of her van in Medford, held up a sign at the corner of the Barnett Road and Interstate 5 interchange that said, "Hungry. Please Help. Merry Christmas. God Bless."

The 39-year-old, who said she's had a difficult time finding a job without a phone or permanent address, said she didn't want to spend time in jail and plans to find other legal locations to panhandle.

Unlike other beggars she's encountered, Cramer said she doesn't use the money for drugs or alcohol. Sometimes, she receives donations of food and the money she receives is used for groceries or gas, she said.

She said many of the panhandlers at the Barnett Road interchange work as a team, taking half-hour shifts. During the holiday period, she said they've been taking one-hour shifts. "It's like a brotherhood," she said.

Bill Gourley, executive director of the Medford Gospel Mission, said, "We've always been opposed to people holding signs and panhandling. In most cases, they're not really using the money for good. It's often used to further their addictive behaviors."

Some panhandlers are looking for money for food or shelter, but Gourley said it's difficult to tell which ones are legitimate. "You can't believe the signs," he said. "They try to get you to be sympathetic."

Gourley said most homeless people and veterans have a variety of agencies they can turn to in the Rogue Valley. The mission provides many of the basic needs such as shelter, food and clothing.

Many panhandlers will just ignore the new law because they are so used to that lifestyle, he said. If they are banned from intersections, many will go into parking lots looking for money, he said.

"A few of them are hard-core panhandlers," said Gourley.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 776-4476 or dmann@mailtribune.com.

Ginger Cramer spent part of Christmas Eve on the corner of Barnett Road and Interstate 5 hoping to raise a little money. Starting Jan. 1, panhandling at lighted intersections will be against city ordinances. - Bob Pennell