Centralia Mentioned in ‘Criminalizing the Visibly Poor’ Survey


A recent study by the Seattle University School of Law cited Centralia’s panhandling ordinance as one example of the criminalization of poverty in Washington state. 

“Washington’s War on the Visibly Poor: A Survey of Criminalizing Ordinances & Their Enforcement” resulted from a survey of 72 municipalities around the state. The paper doesn’t analyze Centralia’s ordinance, but includes it and some of its language in a list titled “Example of Homeless Criminalization Ordinances (By Category of Behavior).”

The paper was written by SU law students Justin Olson and Scott MacDonald and edited by Professor Sara Rankin. 

The paper argues that municipalities of all sizes within the state are creating laws that punish behaviors that are unsightly to the public, but necessary for survival. The homeless, they say, often have no choice but to sleep on sidewalks, urinate in public or beg for money. According to the study, cities around Washington have enacted 288 ordinances that target the homeless since 2000. It also says the people convicted of violating those laws often don’t have the money to pay for them, and the fines can inflate into criminal violations. 

Centralia’s ordinance prohibits panhandling after dark, or at any time within 300 feet of the town’s 23 busiest intersections, Interstate 5 ramps and state highways within city limits. The activity is also banned on public transportation vehicles or stops, or within 15 feet of a gas pump, ATM or a person stepping out of or into a car.

The first offense is a class one civil infraction punishable by up to a $250 fine; the second is a misdemeanor punishable by up to $1,000 and or a 90-day jail sentence; the third is a gross misdemeanor punishable by up to $5,000 and or up to a year in jail. 

Since Centralia’s ordinance went into effect last June, many of the city’s former panhandlers have apparently moved on to Chehalis, but haven’t caused any major issues. As of March 9, Centralia has reportedly written only one citation for panhandling.


Rankin is the founder and director of the Homeless Rights Advocacy Project at the university. 

She said that in the process of gathering information for the survey, they found that often police departments and prosecutors are not interested in enforcing these laws but are pressured to do so by other groups in the community. 

Before its passage last year, soon-to-be retired Centralia Police Chief Bob Berg told The Chronicle his department “didn’t have a horse in this race,” but drafted the ordinance at the city council’s request. Council members who supported the ordinance often cited public safety as a primary reason to enact it.

“The public came to us about this and it’s our job to respond to the public,” Councilor John Elmore said last May when the ordinance was being considered. “It’s a huge issue and a huge eyesore.”  

Rankin argued that there are laws already on the books that address issues such as harassment and violent behavior; panhandling, she says, is more about the fear and discomfort felt at the sight of the homeless. 

“(Aggressive panhandling ordinances) target conduct undertaken only by visibly poor people. Other laws like assault or harassment already cover bad behavior, but those are visibly neutral,” she said. “You’re supposed to target conduct, not people.”

According to language in the ordinance, it was created “to protect citizens from the fear and intimidation accompanying certain kinds of solicitation, to promote tourism and business, and to preserve the quality of urban life while providing safe and appropriate venues for constitutionally protected activity.”

At The Chronicle’s request, Rankin examined it. She said some of its provisions are common and said, broadly speaking, courts have held up provisions that ban activity such as panhandling from highway on and off ramps in the name of public safety. But she took issue with the section of the law that banned panhandling within 300 feet of 23 of the city’s intersections. She suggested it was a violation of free speech to allow, for example, Salvation Army bell ringers and high school car wash sign holders in those places but not panhandlers. 

“I am aware of other jurisdictions where public defenders have challenged these sorts of provisions because they do not reasonably (or permissibly) regulate the free speech rights of panhandlers; instead, they cover major downtown areas, which are the only places where panhandling would occur,” she said in an email. “I’m not familiar with Centralia, but that list of streets and intersections sounds fairly expansive.”


Centralia City Councilor Bart Ricks, who is also an attorney, disagreed with Rankin’s argument. He said he doesn’t see the ordinance as infringing on panhandlers’ freedom of speech, rather it defines where those behaviors are appropriate. 

“I think there is sufficient room for a time and a place, we're not saying you can't do it everywhere,” he said. “We don’t want to criminalize the poor. That’s not the goal and not the aim.”

He also said there are resources available in town that can serve the needy better than allowing them to panhandle everywhere. 

Councilor Gabe Anzelini said he agrees with Rankin’s perspective and is still troubled by the ordinance’s passage. 

“If your end game is to make them go away, then it worked. But if you want to make society a better place, sweeping the problem children under the rug isn’t going to solve the problem,” he said. “I’d love to say, ‘Hey, we should reverse this,’ but you know what I’d get in this town? ‘They’re a Seattle liberal. What do they know?’”