Panhandling laws spreading
|||Honolulu council votes to curb panhandling|
By Tracy Loew
By Tracy Loew
Honolulu is not the only city cracking down on panhandling.
Panhandling on public transportation can get you a year in jail in Medford, Ore. Telling a lie while asking for money in Macon, Ga., is against the law. In Minneapolis, begging in groups has been banned.
Cities across the nation are stepping up efforts to restrict begging, especially in downtown shopping areas.
In the past year, more than a dozen municipalities — from Olympia, Wash., to Orlando — have passed or strengthened such ordinances. At least three other laws are close to adoption.
The Honolulu City Council yesterday passed an islandwide ban on aggressive panhandling near ATMs.
Cities have enacted laws targeting the homeless for two decades, including bans on sleeping outdoors or loitering. In the past few years, the focus has turned to panhandling restrictions, said Maria Foscarinis, executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.
That's partly because more cities are trying to redevelop their downtowns, Foscarinis said.
"No one likes to see destitute people in the city center. No one likes to walk down the street and be asked for change," she said.
That was the case in Louisville, which passed a panhandling ordinance last month.
"We've really been revitalizing downtown," city spokesman Chris Poynter said. "We have new restaurants, especially with outdoor seating. People were just over and over panhandling patrons as they sat outside."
Homeless advocates and the American Civil Liberties Union consider begging to be free speech, protected by the First Amendment.
"The purpose of the laws is to drive the visible homeless out of the downtown areas," said Michael Stoops, acting director of the Washington-based National Coalition for the Homeless. "We believe that people have a right to beg, and citizens have a right to give or not to give."
Some panhandling laws have been struck down because of free-speech issues. Cities find ways to get around that.
Most new ordinances aren't blanket bans, but restrict the time, place or manner of begging, Foscarinis said.
In Portland, Ore., city officials worked in partnership with the ACLU to make sure other city services for homeless people were in place before enacting an anti-panhandling ordinance last spring. Other cities encourage people to donate to social service agencies, rather than directly to the homeless. Baltimore, Denver and Dallas installed "charity boxes" near parking meters for people to donate spare change.
"That's probably not the worst kind of program that could be devised, but people on the streets need money for both bad things and good things — alcohol and food, bus fare, laundry," Stoops said.
The restrictive trend isn't limited to big cities.
Last month, Gretna, Va., a town of 1,300, passed an emergency ordinance banning aggressive panhandling. Town Manager David Lilly said residents were wakened at night by beggars banging on their doors.
"It's being fueled by the crack industry. They come up with all sorts of excuses: Mama's in the hospital, dog just died. It's absolutely absurd," Lilly said.