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Hard times on Kirkland streets: Some want panhandling banned, while others more sympathetic
Jim’s daily goal is to secure his half of $66.75.
After that, he can breathe easy. After that, he no longer needs to worry if he’ll have a bed to sleep in at night.
“If we get our room and a little extra, I’m happy,” Jim said of he and his brother, who are both Kirkland panhandlers. “Then we can get out of here and we don’t have to stand here all night.”
Jim stands on the sidewalk of 116th Avenue Northeast in the Totem Lake neighborhood on Friday afternoon. His brother stands across the street from him and they hold up signs that read “hard times, homeless and broke, anything helps, thank you and God bless.”
The two have been homeless for three years, living day by day at Motel 6 in the Totem Lake neighborhood. Throughout the three years, Jim and his brother have only spent three sporadic nights without shelter. During those times, they sat at Denny’s all night long.
Things turned for the worst when Jim and his brother had a roommate who suddenly moved out of their Totem Lake residence at Woodlake Apartments. Jim and his brother “came up $50 short” on their paperwork because he said his brother couldn’t locate one W2 that proved he was working. As a result, Jim said the apartment’s management rented the apartment out from under them.
“I had to pack everything up and put it in storage,” said Jim.
Although Jim and his brother have lived in Kirkland for more than 25 years, and each have worked various blue collar jobs, Jim said obtaining a job has been hard with the current state of the economy – especially for older people.
The 53-year-old explains that his chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a lung disease with chronic bronchitis as a symptom, prevents him from working in factories or other jobs that may entail poor air quality. Jim acknowledges that standing near car exhaust all day and his smoking habit don’t help his health, but even so, he says employers don’t want to hire older people.
When Jim was on unemployment, he went to a WorkSource workshop and he said “there was this expert on older people getting jobs. The first thing out of his mouth was ‘Well, if you’re over 40 years old, good luck’ because people don’t want older people for jobs anymore.”
Older people tend to be less healthy, they get tired quicker, they’re worth more money, usually, than what (employers) want to pay, said Jim.
“It took me a long time to get used to this because I didn’t want to do it. I felt guilty, I felt bad, it just didn’t feel right,” he said. “But later, you just figure well, hey, you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.”
Fortunately for Jim, there’s a lot of generous people in Kirkland.
“I’ve got regulars that I see and they’re happy to help,” said Jim. “A lot of panhandlers are aggressive, but we’re not aggressive. We just stand here and if people want to help us out, they do. If they don’t, they don’t.
“Nobody really knows what to do and I sure as hell don’t want to stay in a shelter because there’s sick people all over the place in those shelters.”
Lt. Mike Murray with the Kirkland Police Department said panhandling has never been a real issue in Kirkland, nor is it a crime. He said very few people have made formal complaints about panhandling within the last few years.
But Murray has seen a slight increase.
Murray speculates that Kirkland sees only two to four panhandlers “at any given time” and the city doesn’t have many in comparison to other cities.
“This time is pretty rough for them and we don’t see as many folks out,” said Murray, adding that panhandling is more common in the spring and summer because it’s not as cold to stand out on a street corner.
When panhandlers do come out, many of them frequent Kirkland’s Houghton, downtown and Totem Lake neighborhoods.
Last year Kirklander John Stubb proposed an ordinance to the Kirkland City Council. Although it was turned down, Stubb believes a panhandling measure is possible because Issaquah and Spokane made the motion a few years ago.
Cities throughout the United States have panhandling ordinances in place, which when challenged, are often successfully overturned due to constitutional protections, said Murray.
Murray compares the concept to when the Fire Department stands at busy intersections as they collect donations for their Muscular Dystrophy Association’s Fill the Boot charity fund raiser.
“Fortunately for us, we have existing Kirkland ordinances and state traffic laws, which although not specific to panhandling, allow us to adequately address the specific concerning behaviors usually associated with panhandling, such as overly aggressive or menacing type actions or obstructing traffic, walking into roadways, etc.,” Murray wrote in an email. “It has never been a major issue here in Kirkland, most of them are law abiding and peaceful.”
But sometimes there is the occasional “turf war.”
Within two weeks in January, police responded to two different incidents at the Northeast 124th Street and 116th Avenue Northeast intersection near the Totem Lake Wendy’s.
The Reporter witnessed four police cars surrounding some panhandlers at the southbound 405, exit 20 on Jan. 21.
“They were upset at each other for one ‘taking over’ the corner that another person had felt was theirs because they work it more often,” said Murray, noting that these incidents occur fewer than five times per year. “Kind of a ‘turf’ argument. It was merely verbal altercations that were handled peacefully by our officers.”
Jim, who saw one of these incidents ensue, said an intoxicated man started pushing another man who sells roses. When police arrived, both were ordered to leave the street median they were on. But the man who had been drinking - what Jim said was a Four Loko - came back.
“Next thing you know, he’s on the ground, people called the cops, the same cops came back out and a few extras, and once they got him on his feet, they cuffed him,” Jim said. “So, he’s in jail for however long they do for trespass.”
Kirklander Andrea Fuentes said in a Facebook comment she has contacted the City of Kirkland about a group of panhandlers who allegedly work together on all of the corners by Wendy’s. But according to Fuentes, city officials said they couldn’t do much about the panhandlers unless they were harassing people.
“I would like to see them in a shelter and not on the corners of Kirkland,” Fuentes said, also noting she’s seen some with cell phones and speculates “they all live together at the Motel 6.”
Dave Gover also said he’s seen panhandlers on mobile devices in the same area.
“If they are able to afford a luxury item such as a mobile phone, they should not need to panhandle,” said Gover. “Give up the phone and buy some food. I am sympathetic to those who are less fortunate than I, but when I witness stuff like that happening, it makes me truly second guess how honest some of these people are in stating they are ‘homeless.’”
However, Jim said it is these panhandlers that come to Kirkland who are from other areas that ruin it for the longtime Kirkland panhandlers.
“You get them out here and they’re drinking in public… (they) got their own little group of people that go out and… it’s their own little business is what it is,” he said.
Nearly 20 Kirklanders see panhandling here as a problem.
“I have been very surprised recently by the increase in the number of people panhandling in Kirkland,” said Shaun Kelly in a Facebook comment, adding that he sees them in west Totem Lake and Juanita. “I find it very discouraging to see so many people who feel the need to stand on the street asking for money this way. There has to be better options for making sure that nobody is in such need in this country.”
Others, like Ty Roberts, have seen one gal who “likes to show up on 85th (Street) who is sometimes pregnant, sometimes not” and an older man who sits outside of the Rose Hill Starbucks.
“Just never give them money. Ever. You’re not helping if you do,” said Roberts. “If you want to help, hand them a card for a shelter.”
At least two women said they “hated” the panhandling and several agreed it shouldn’t be allowed.
“These people put a bad mark on an otherwise pleasant town of Kirkland,” said Leandra Fuentes. “Not sure what visitors must think when the first thing they see getting off the exits to the city are all these vagrants with their hands out.”
Randy Kaiser believes that Kirklanders aren’t helping panhandlers find solutions to their emotional, economic or employment issues by allowing the practice to continue.
And yet, those such as Cecilia and Josh Brown believe even if money can’t be given, a smile should.
Josh, who recently moved out of Kirkland, believes that unless a person has been in a panhandler’s shoes, they shouldn’t assume they have the answers for them.
“You never know what brought a person to that place and anyone, at any given time, could be in that same spot,” said Cecilia. “I’ll give if I can. When I can’t, I can always afford to give a smile or say hello.”
The most recent annual One Night Count from the Seattle/King County Coalitions on Homelessness indicates the Eastside has seen a 43 percent increase of homeless people. On Jan. 25, the organization reported 197 homeless people who slept outside - 138 were reported last year.
To donate money to homeless services, visit www.eastsideforum.org/eastsidehelps/donatemoney.php