Phoenix Councilwoman Thelda Williams Pushes Panhandling, Jaywalking Changes

By Christina Estes
Published: Wednesday, February 12, 2020 - 5:29pm
Updated: Thursday, February 13, 2020 - 12:46pm

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City of Phoenix
Phoenix City Councilwoman Thelda Williams.

Phoenix leaders could make it easier for police to ticket jaywalkers and certain panhandlers.

Councilwoman Thelda Williams wants to change city codes so police are no longer required to give first-time warnings to panhandlers on medians, those are the concrete platforms on streets. 

During Wednesday’s public safety sub-committee meeting, she said eliminating first-time warnings is just one way to try to get people to accept services for addiction and mental health issues.   

“For the regular ones that are out there all the time we are just enabling them to have the continuation of that lifestyle,” Williams said. “And I don’t want to become a Los Angeles and I don’t want to become San Francisco and have tent cities up and down.” 

She also wants to eliminate the first-time warning for jaywalkers because she says despite the city launching a public awareness campaign, adding more lights and marked crosswalks, pedestrians keep dying — mostly after being hit by cars in areas that are not designated as crosswalks. 

“Something has to be done, we need to save lives,” she said. “And it’s not just a matter of the person that gets hit-how would you like to be the driver that hit somebody? That’s got to traumatize them and have an impact on their lives forever.”

Williams said she’s worked on the issue for a long time along with her colleague Michael Nowaksowski and, “Nothing’s been effective so far in the last year and a half, it’s not had a big impact. Anymore, if it’s going to be important, you’ve got to attach money to it.” 

Eliminating the first-time warnings could result in a fine of up to $250. A second offense could bring a fine up to $2,500 and possibly jail time or probation.

Ticketing and fining people for failing to use designated crosswalks did not sit well with Vice Mayor Betty Guardado and Councilmember Carlos Garcia who expressed concerns about criminalizing that behavior rather than issuing warnings. 

Several residents also spoke out against targeting people they say are disadvantaged by our transportation system. Ryan Leith with the Urban Phoenix Project said the real issue is the way streets are designed. 

mock up of proposed sign for healthy giving
City of Phoenix
Sign design for pilot program scheduled to launch in Phoenix Councilwoman Thelda Williams' district in late Februrary 2020.

“They often are going to half a mile without a signalized crossing which you are required by the statutes to use,” he said. “If you’re on one side of it, you’re not going to add 10-15 minutes of travel time in Phoenix’s climate to get to the other side.”  

Like jaywalking, current city code says police must first give a warning. But there’s a big problem with that. The police department does not currently have the technology to accurately track who has been given a warning and who has not.

Councilwoman Williams, who wants to do away with a mandatory warning, talked about how she sees the same people panhandling on medians. She said it creates potentially dangerous situations for drivers and people asking for money.

“These people may have problems but they’re not stupid and they have a good memory and once they learn that they can be warned multiple times and nothing’s going to happen it’s no longer relevant in their life,” she said.

Williams is also using money from her office budget to have about 25 signs installed near 13 intersections in her district, which encompasses much of northwest Phoenix. Williams’ goal is to discourage people from giving money to panhandlers.

The blue-and-white signs will be 18 by 18 inches and read: “Please consider giving your spare change to help create lasting change. Give to the solution” with givesmartaz.org at the bottom. The website belongs to the Healthy Giving Council, a coalition of public, private, nonprofit and faith-based groups focused on providing healthy ways to give throughout the year.

Williams is a strong supporter of the Healthy Giving Council and believes people should give to agencies that have expertise in helping people end their homelessness. The signs should appear in her district by the end of this month. As for potential changes to city codes involving jaywalking and standing on medians, the subcommittee agreed to send the issue to the full council discussion but no date has been set.

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