BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — The next time you’re out on the road in Bakersfield, you may notice some new signage.
They’re not traffic signs, but they are “signs of the times” we’re living in when it comes to homelessness and panhandling.
Over the past week, the city has installed those signs in an attempt to partner with residents in helping the homeless.
Eleven red and white signs at eleven different locations read: “Handouts don’t help. Help local agencies provide services.”
“We’re helping the homeless people that are typically doing the panhandling, making sure they’re able to get the services they need in order to get off the streets and into permanent housing if possible,” explained Joe Conroy with the City of Bakersfield.
The city has worked with the Bakersfield Police Department in choosing those sites. Per Conroy, they’re either hotspots for panhandling or are especially dangerous medians for panhandlers to be at.
The sign encourages residents to instead donate to the Kern Community Foundation.
“Who will then take that money that’s donated and send it to The Open Door Network and to The Mission at Kern County, where those services can get supported and the homeless people can go there to get services that way,” Conroy said.
Aaron Falk, president and CEO of the Kern Community Foundation told 17 News all donations will be given 50/50 to the two organizations.
Conroy added, “Giving money directly to a homeless person, it may help them momentarily, but it won’t necessarily help them long term.”
He said the city hopes such efforts can provide quick and immediate services, including medical, mental health and substance abuse care to those who need it.
He also cited safety as a reason for the public discouragement of panhandling, so that residents don’t make standing on the streets an “attractive opportunity.”
California and Oak is one of the 11 locations.
Employees at the Jiffy Lube and Taco Bell at the northwest corner of the intersection said they constantly see panhandlers around their stores, as well as the median on which the sign has been installed.
“Sometimes they’ll ask the customers for money and that’s when we gotta be like you guys gotta go, get off the property, leave the customers alone,” said Bakersfield resident Chris Acosta. “Some of them will actually go inside and try to use the facilities.”
Acosta added, “Every morning when we open up, there’s always people sleeping right here in front of the [shop].”
Acosta said while he understands times are tough, he has no choice but to turn people away when they interfere with business.
Others shared less of an understanding.
“I’ve seen [panhandlers] go into places and shoplift, and no one seems to want to do anything,” said Bakersfield resident Ralph Abruscato. “A lot of these people could really use some help, but they don’t want to go through agencies because it means they’ll have to go through something called discipline.”
He also expressed critiques of the city, arguing not enough is being done.
“The city really does have a choice, but they’re really lackadaisical in what they do,” Abruscato said.
Residents also shared mixed responses on this taxpayer-funded initiative. Each sign costs about $110 to make. The money for the signs comes from the City Manager’s Homeless Services budget.
“You’re kind of taking away their freedom to purchasing whatever they want to use the money for,” said Jaime Estrada, Lamont resident.
Acosta said, “At the end of the day, it’s just a sign. There’s no one actually coming out and enforcing that.”
But there was a consensus panhandling can get out of hand.
“My reaction is, ignore them,” said Abruscato.
On the signs, the resident said, “It’s like looking at ornaments on a Christmas tree. That’s all it is. Just ornaments.”
As for formal city regulations on panhandling, Bakersfield has Chapter 9.32 under its Municipal Code, which addresses both panhandling and soliciting.
In a statement to 17 News, however, City Attorney Virginia “Ginny” Gennaro clarified that ordinance has not been enforced since July 2018.
“Our ordinance was modeled after one in Sacramento. That law was successfully challenged so we stopped enforcing our ordinance in July 2018. The primary reason for the successful challenge was the fact that the law targets speech and not necessarily behavior.”