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City of Oak Harbor explores panhandling ordinance

Jeff Pangburn stands at an entrance to the Safeway parking lot in Oak Harbor Wednesday seeking help from the public. - Jessie Stensland / Whidbey News-Times
Jeff Pangburn stands at an entrance to the Safeway parking lot in Oak Harbor Wednesday seeking help from the public.
— image credit: Jessie Stensland / Whidbey News-Times

Although “Jeff the Giant” claims to be the tallest man on Whidbey Island, he doesn’t cut a very imposing figure as he stands with a cardboard sign at the entrance of the Oak Harbor Safeway complex Wednesday afternoon.

With a goofy smile and an affable manner, Jeff Pangburn happily collects cookies, deli food and a few dollars from people driving by.

“I don’t ask people for nothing, I just stand here with my sign,” he said.

Pangburn is one of the increasing number of homeless and poor people who’ve taken up panhandling in the city. The spot near Safeway, he said, is the most popular and can be hard to get.

Pangburn said he’s mystified and a little worried that Oak Harbor City Council is considering a panhandling ordinance at the Jan. 21 meeting, though he doesn’t know the details of it. Nobody he knows is ever aggressive about asking strangers for cash.

He said he’s concerned about any rules that could make it difficult for his fellow panhandlers to feed themselves.

“I’m worried about Ray and other people. They depend on it,” he said, describing “Ray” as a former mailman who became homeless after an injury.

Yet Chief Ed Green with the Oak Harbor Police Department said there’s no reason for the average panhandler to be concerned about the proposed rules, though the city may also place anti-panhandling signs in key places around town.

The proposed ordinance, he said, is aimed at aggressive panhandling. He admits that hasn’t been a problem in the city and that the police probably have only received a couple of complaints. But he said he wanted to “get ahead of the curve” and create proactive rules because of the increase in panhandling, as well as the experiences in other communities.

The proposed ordinance would make it a misdemeanor to obstruct pedestrian or vehicular traffic or to aggressively panhandle, which is defined as begging “with the intent to intimidate or coerce another person into giving money or goods,” he said.

“You have a right to feel safe and you have the right to ask people for money,” he said.

According to Green, the proposed ordinance is based on one from Marysville and is much less restrictive than what many other communities have enacted.

Green said the ordinance won’t affect the panhandlers who stand with a sign at the busy entrance to Safeway.

“To just stand there and hold a sign isn’t a problem,” he said.

The chief said city officials are also considering signs meant to dissuade the practice. The proposed signs would say, “Keep the change. Don’t support panhandling. Give to a local charity.”

Green said the department’s community service officers will work with city engineers and public works staff to identify the best places for the signs, the council gives them the go-ahead.

“They won’t be placed arbitrarily,” he said. “We don’t want to create sign pollution and blanket the city.”

As for Pangburn, he said folks don’t seem bothered by his panhandling. Wednesday, Oak Harbor resident Robert Brothers walked up and gave Pangburn packages of prepared food and a hug.

“I can’t do it all, but I can make a difference,” Brothers said. “I can give them some hope.”

Pangburn said the food and money he gets from panhandling is especially important to him in the winter, when it’s most difficult to pick up small jobs.

He doesn’t have a home, but usually camps in woods on Libbey Road or at Deception Pass. He said there’s also a broken-down van north of town where he can crash.

“I’ve got my summer home and my winter home,” he said with a laugh.

 

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