Central to the plan is getting residents to stop giving money when people ask for it in parking lots or along the street. Instead, Lt. Michael Madden said, people should donate to charities like United Way or a faith-based group and direct panhandlers to get help at established centers.
That will give homeless people the help they need and cause them to give up panhandling in San Bernardino, Lt. Madden said.
Madden compared it to fishing: If you don't catch any fish in a particular place, you'll move on.
The department is working on cards that can be given to panhandlers to direct them to places that offer meals, showers and other resources, while in the meantime people can get a list of services by calling United Way at 2-1-1.
"How many people are going to take advantage of it?" Madden asked rhetorically. "I don't know. But if we get 1 out of 10, that's better than nothing."
Chief Robert Handy said he's put Madden -- one of nine lieutenants -- in charge of a wide panhandling initiative on top of the one officer who previously handled those issues to demonstrate commitment.
Violent crime is a serious issue, but most residents aren't directly affected by it. In contract, most have been victims of a blight or nuisance crime, Handy said.
"This is one of the main things people tell us they want," Handy said.
Police are retooling their efforts to be more aggressive on panhandling and homeless-related issues, but that doesn't mean police will be driving homeless people from the street, he said.
"I want to be very clear: We're not going to criminalize homelessness," Handy said.
But those contacted by police 10 or more times for panhandling or loitering will be treated with a zero-tolerance policy, meaning an arrest or citation for every offense, Madden said. There are 17 such "chronic service drains" identified in the city, and streamlined reporting is expected to increase that number before policies start driving it down, he said.
Some panhandlers are organized much like criminal gangs, said City Attorney James F. Penman, who said his investigators found a homeless camp with a list with a schedule of when panhandlers could stand at certain locations and when police and city attorney investigators patrol.
As the city has with gangs and prostitutes, Penman and Handy hope to reduce the problem with injunctions prohibiting repeat offenders from even being in certain areas where their crimes often occur, although they say that's uncharted territory.
The problem itself has evolved over years, but increased markedly and driven out many businesses in the last decade, Penman said.
"Panhandlers go back a long time. They're mentioned in the Bible," he said. "However, the ones in ancient Israel weren't for the most part drug addicts and alcoholics. ... That's what the money is going toward now."
Signs reminding people that panhandling is a crime and asking them not to contribute have significantly reduced the number of panhandlers along 40th Street, said Nikki Blackwood of Rosa Marias restaurant and head of a business group there.
"It's made a big difference," she said. "It's given them some backbone, to be able to point to that (sign)."