Editorial: Panhandling ordinance has its limits
Last Saturday morning, just as another round of snow was beginning to fall, a woman waiting in a line of traffic to exit a Fort Eddy Road shopping center rolled down her car window, stretched out her arm and beckoned the panhandler standing at the intersection. His sign said “Anything will help – God bless,” and when he got to the woman’s car, she gave him a fistful of snowy dollar bills.
The transaction was illegal, according to a city ordinance passed last spring. In fact, that’s what one disapproving grocery shopper in the Shaw’s parking lot yelled to the woman in the car as he watched the money exchange. But no officers appeared, no one was fined, the light turned green, and life went on.
The volume of panhandling appears to have decreased in Concord, but it surely hasn’t disappeared. Few motorists are surprised to see beggars on Fort Eddy Road or near the Exit 14 off-ramp from Interstate 93. The inconvenience and danger they provoke – holding up traffic, risking accidents – is still with us.
Which is why, when we heard that Rochester was now considering an ordinance like Concord’s, we were skeptical. The ability of such a rule to make a dramatic difference is limited. Given the difficulty of catching beggars in the act, that’s not surprising. And given the many, many higher-priority challenges facing the police, who really wants to see Concord officers spending significant time policing such activity?
Concord’s ordinance represented a well-intentioned compromise between free-speech advocates concerned about the rights of panhandlers to ask for help and city officials and businesspeople who wanted to curb begging. Under the new rule, it’s not illegal to stand in a public place and ask for money. It is, however, a violation to receive donations from a person inside a car. If charged, panhandlers face a maximum fine of $500, though city officials have said judges typically base penalties on a person’s ability to pay.
The Concord police have received at least 130 calls for panhandling or aggressive panhandling since the ordinance took effect last spring, according to Lt. Tim O’Malley. Most beggars were GOA – gone on arrival – and the police were unable to pursue them. As a result, Concord officers have issued just six summonses in such cases. As O’Malley noted, it’s hard to prove someone has actually taken money from someone in a car if you arrive after the fact. In some of those cases, the charge was actually disorderly conduct, when panhandlers were perceived to be impeding the flow of traffic. (In some cases, O’Malley said, panhandlers have been known to repeatedly push the “Walk” button at intersections to hold up traffic while they beg.)
The threat of a fine has perhaps dissuaded some Concord panhandlers. Others are clearly willing to take the risk.
Until this week, Rochester had a much broader ordinance. Although officials there were concerned about what they called “aggressive” panhandling, the rule prohibited even peaceful begging from much of that city’s downtown, including near businesses, ATMs, banks and bus stops. After the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union protested, the city repealed the ordinance. The Rochester mayor now says he’d like to consider one along the lines of Concord’s.
Ultimately, of course, the problem for Concord and Rochester and many, many other communities across the country isn’t panhandling but poverty, homelessness and the accompanying addictions and mental illness that make it difficult for some people to settle into safer, more productive lives. By and large, people with easier, more lucrative ways to earn a buck do so.