Hawaii proposal limits begging for money
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By Mary Vorsino
Advertiser Urban Honolulu Writer
By Mary Vorsino
As the homeless population in Waikiki has grown over the past several years, so has panhandling, say residents who are pushing for a City Council bill that would ban "aggressive panhandling" near ATMs or check-cashing businesses.
"It's bad for tourism," said Dave Moskowitz, longtime Waikiki resident and manager at Galaxy Steakhouse on Kuhio Avenue. "These people try to live off other people. They ... get in people's faces. They try to live off the bounty of Waikiki."
The measure is modeled after similar bans passed in several Mainland cities, and carries a $25 fine. A public hearing on the proposal is set for Wednesday.
Advocates for homeless people contend the bill would criminalize homelessness and duplicate a disorderly conduct law already on the books. National and local civil-rights attorneys are reviewing the measure and may pursue legal challenges if it is passed.
"Unfortunately, it's dealing with symptoms rather than the actual problem," said Doran Porter, executive director of the Affordable Housing and Homeless Alliance. "The symptoms are not going to go away until we buckle down and really make a concerted effort to deal with the lack of affordable housing."
The bill, which will likely go before the full council next month, would ban "aggressive panhandling" within 10 feet of an ATM or check-cashing facility.
It would not, however, ban panhandling outright.
The bill's definition of "aggressive panhandling" includes following people after they have declined to hand over money, touching a person who is being solicited, or using profane or abusive language.
The Big Island County Council passed an aggressive panhandling ban nearly a decade ago, which prohibits soliciting "in an aggressive manner" in public places and bans all panhandling within 10 feet of building entrances.
Since 2005, just one person has been arrested or charged, according to the Big Island police department, which said it could not immediately pull older statistics.
The measure, homeless advocates say, comes as large and small cities nationwide are passing bans on panhandling — and other behaviors usually associated with the homeless, such as sleeping on benches, in parks or at city bus stops — largely as a way to take on a pervasive homeless problem.
Authors of the O'ahu panhandling bill say it is meant to target what appears to be a growing homeless population in the No. 1 tourist destination in the Islands. Recent counts put the number of homeless on the streets of Waikiki at more than 200.
Bob Finley, chairman of the Waikiki Neighborhood Board, said the bill is part of a series of approaches the city can take to tackle homelessness in the community. "We feel it will make Waikiki a little more comfortable place," he said.
A recent National Coalition for the Homeless report says about 45 percent of 224 U.S. cities surveyed ban aggressive panhandling and 21 percent have outright begging prohibitions.
The study also found there was an 18 percent increase nationally in laws prohibiting aggressive panhandling from 2002 to 2006, while there was a 12 percent increase in begging bans.
Michael Stoops, acting executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based National Coalition for the Homeless, said cities nationwide are taking up everything from aggressive panhandling bills to bans on feeding the homeless in parks or other public places as a means of confronting the homeless population.
Seattle was the first city to ban aggressive panhandling in the 1980s. A host of cities followed suit, but some of those laws were challenged in court, with advocates contending they violated free speech and other rights.
Nationally, courts have generally ruled that aggressive panhandling laws are constitutional, as they serve a public interest. Outright bans against begging, meanwhile, have been overturned countless times.
Either way, Stoops contends, anti-panhandling laws never work in resolving homelessness. "This is part of a growing trend to make it illegal to be homeless," he said. "Instead of arresting people for being on the streets, maybe we should find out why they're there in the first place."
Stoops said coalition lawyers would be reviewing the O'ahu panhandling measure, and the American Civil Liberties Union also is monitoring the bill.
The panhandling bill proposed for O'ahu came out of the Waikiki Neighborhood Board, whose members took up the issue of homelessness in the community at their October meeting.
Councilman Charles Djou, whose district includes Waikiki, wrote the bill and introduced it last month. The original would have banned panhandling within 50 feet of ATMs, but Djou amended it for fear it would be too broad to enforce.
The ban would apply islandwide, but Djou said the biggest problem with panhandling is in Waikiki, where tourists with plenty to spend are often targets.
The Waikiki Neighborhood Board voted 10-6 in favor of the panhandling measure. Board member Mike Peters said panhandlers target "vulnerable people," specifically elderly Japanese women.
"The 10-feet rule gives a person a sense of security," Peters said. "This bill is a first step. It's not going to be a cure-all."
Djou said he is confident it would survive a legal challenge.
"For it to be illegal, you have to affirmatively go up to someone, accost them and solicit money from them," he said.
'NOT A HUGE PROBLEM'
Police said they could not provide statistics on the scope of panhandling in Waikiki or elsewhere. But Police Maj. Randy Macadangdang, commander of the Waikiki substation, said he doesn't see panhandling as a priority concern.
"It's not a huge problem, but we do have it from time to time," he said. He added that police are "always open to new laws and ideas."
Advocates say the panhandling bill duplicates a state disorderly conduct law, which bans impeding or obstructing anyone "for the purpose of begging or soliciting alms" in a public place, if they do it with "intent to cause physical inconvenience or alarm" or recklessly create a risk.
Darlene Hein, the program director of Waikiki Care-a-Van, which offers food, medical help and other services to homeless people islandwide, said banning panhandling won't help the homeless problem, and it certainly will hurt some people.
But Mary Cowing, a Waikiki resident since 1984, disagrees. Many panhandlers are homeless people who appear to have alcohol or drug problems, she said.
"You walk by them and they ask you for money," Cowling said, "and if you don't give it to them, they look at you funny."
Reach Mary Vorsino at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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