SEATTLE -- For many in Seattle, the jury is still out on the city's new ordinance against "aggressive panhandling," but from where one panhandler sits, it's a good idea.
Kevin Morrissey sits near a downtown corner huddled in a heavy coat and ski cap in the 32-degree weather with a small cardboard box in front of him bearing scribbled pleas for help.
"Some people do get aggressive when they're down here panhandling," he said. "I think they should be run off. They give us others down here a bad name."
Several other downtown beggars agreed with Morrissey and said they have had few problems with police enforcing the law that took effect Nov. 27. One of the city's most vocal advocates for street people, who had strongly opposed the measure before its adoption, says he has changed his mind.
"So far I'm very, very happy with it, which surprised me," said Bob Willmott, head of the Strand Helpers. "I've heard of nobody being harassed for just having a sign or a cup," he said.
But Ken Cole has a different opinion. He runs the Downtown Emergency Service Center, a shelter for the homeless.
"I think the new law in the first place was designed to send a message to the visible downtown homeless. And the message was, 'Get out of town.' And I think that message has been received," he said.
The ordinance, the first of its type in the country, prohibits panhandlers from intimidating or blocking passers-by. It carries a maximum penalty of a $500 fine and 90 days in jail.
The law is one of several adopted recently by the city and state aimed at changing the behavior of many street people. The city now has ordinances prohibiting open alcohol containers in public and any alcohol in city parks.
The state has made it tougher for those deemed unemployable to get a monthly assistance check. That payment was derided as the "drunk check" by critics, who said it attracted transients who simply spent it on liquor.
Cole said he knew of no figures on the number of beggars in Seattle, though he and Willmott placed the number of Seattle-area homeless at 3,000 to 4,000.
Police Capt. Jim Deschane said that in the panhandling ordinance's first three weeks, there were two arrests, though officers gave many verbal warnings. ". . . The fact the officers have that authority makes quite a difference," Deschane said.
Doug Whalley, head of the city attorney's criminal division, agreed that the purpose of the ordinance is to change the conduct of a relatively small number of people. Only one of the two arrested was charged, he said. The charge was dismissed "because it didn't seem worth going forward."
Deschane and officials of downtown merchant groups said the real test of the law will come next summer, when downtown fills with tourists and more street people.
Both John Gilmore, vice president of the Downtown Seattle Association, and Cole agreed the change in the assistance-check law has had a greater impact than the panhandling law. But the combined effect, Cole said, is "a crackdown on the street population."
Deschane said he began noticing in early November that there were fewer beggars. "Whether that was predicated on the ordinance coming or other factors played into that I don't know, but there have been definite changes on the street," he said.