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Sunday, June 5, 1994 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Joni Balter

City's Panhandling Laws Becoming A Big Problem For Small Neighborhoods

Coming to work each day at the uncivilized hour of 1:30 a.m., West Seattle restaurateur and baker Lloyd McIsaac is no stranger to darkness, night owls and weirdos.

But he was rattled by one wild-eyed vagrant with a shorn-off pant leg who banged incessantly on the door of Snubby's restaurant early one morning two weeks ago. The guy bellowed obscenities at McIsaac, demanding to be let in even though the place was closed.

McIsaac called the cops, who shooed the guy away. But three hours later when Snubby's opened, the man stood in a doorway across the street and unloaded another gutter full of swear words at customers as they arrived for coffee and scones. Jolly good morning to you, too.

"This is new for me," said McIsaac, who's been in business in West Seattle Junction for 10 years. "I notice a big change in this neighborhood."

More people camping in doorways. More syringes discarded in alleys and streets. More urinating in walkways.

All have increased dramatically in recent months, says Shallon Tagg, director of the West Seattle business-improvement area.

The change in West Seattle, parts of Queen Anne and Ballard coincides with Seattle's new laws criminalizing urinating and drinking in public. Those laws, which took effect last winter, apply citywide, but enforcement is emphasized downtown.

In April, police also began enforcing a new law prohibiting sitting and lying on the sidewalk during business hours in commercial zones. So far, signs pronouncing the new rules have only been posted downtown (and some of those have been taken down and made into seats).

It's the toothpaste-tube theory: A squeeze downtown simply moves these folks into other neighborhoods.

We're not talking about large groups of downtown panhandlers boarding the bus en masse for one neighborhood street corner. It's more subtle than that. Individually and in small groups, they venture to other areas of town where police presence is weaker.

In some neighborhoods, a few troublemakers or street toughs change perceptions and attitudes a lot.

In Ballard, residents and business owners have called the Little City Hall to complain about aggressive panhandlers hassling elderly shoppers and urinating in bushes on 22nd Northwest north of Market Street, a spot crudely referred to as the gauntlet.

"Some people say they have seen the same faces in downtown Seattle and now they are in Ballard," says Rob Mattson, manager of the Little City Hall. "It's much worse today than six months ago."

Last winter, a group of four panhandlers and their boss set up shop on the sidewalk in front of Bartell's drug store. The panhandlers work in shifts, says Bartell's assistant manager, Howard Cohen. The boss comes around and collects like clockwork. (Can a beggar's union be far away?)

Store managers often have to stop what they're doing and go outside to walk frightened customers to their cars or to urge the vagrants to move on.

Seattle's tough laws on panhandling, urinating and drinking in public, and sitting and lying on the sidewalk are cutting-edge stuff. Anybody who doesn't believe in taking tough steps to make downtown more hospitable to shoppers and workers wins two free one-way tickets to downtown Detroit or any other dead urban center of their choice.

But Seattle's precious small neighborhood business districts matter, too. Cutting-edge or not, the laws should be enforced more uniformly. Otherwise, they don't really solve the problem, they just move it around.

Joni Balter's column appears Sunday and Thursdays in the Local News section of The Times. Her voice-mail number is 464-3279.

Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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