Editorial: Panhandling ordinance: a difficult but worthwhile challenge for city
Cities all over America have reported an increase in panhandling and a corresponding increase in attempts to control or ban it – as well as in lawsuits challenging the restrictions. Crafting an ordinance to better regulate panhandling is a difficult task, but one that Concord, with input from advocates for the poor, should attempt.
Panhandling has increased dramatically in Concord in recent months, and it’s not entirely clear that it’s recession-related. Nor is it clear what percentage of panhandlers are homeless or how many spend the money donated by good Samaritans on drugs or alcohol. But any ordinance created must be blind to the presumed use of the money. Someone trying to collect enough to buy a six-pack enjoys the same rights under the First Amendment as someone soliciting money for a charity.
Any prohibition on begging must be carefully worded and limited in scope. The issue pits the expectations of citizens to be free of annoyance, fear and intrusion against the free speech rights of others, whether they are asking for directions or a handout. Aggressive panhandling that includes following people, refusing to take a no for an answer, or otherwise intimidating people should clearly be illegal. But other cases are close calls, and the decision officials make can determine the feel of a city.
The lines governing panhandling are not clear. It isn’t easy to determine when, for reasons of public safety, for example, it’s permissible to limit First Amendment rights. Some panhandlers stand silently and hold a sign. Others verbally solicit help. Some stand on sidewalks or roadsides, but others approach people while they’re pumping gas, exiting their car at a shopping center, or leaving an ATM. The latter approaches are inherently intimidating and should be banned. Ordinances that forbid begging within a given distance from an automatic teller machine, in a public parking garage or on public transportation have been upheld by courts and should be considered.
Most panhandling in Concord appears to occur at intersections, or at the entrances or exits to shopping malls. That can present a safety issue if, for example, a panhandler walks between cars or moves to the middle of the road to accept a donation from a driver. A hazard also occurs when a stopped vehicle pulls around a donor’s car or when a driver stops unexpectedly to contribute.
Panhandling can also affect the flow of traffic – regardless of who’s doing the begging. Firefighters, for example, do great work. But when their collection drives result in motorists getting stuck for one or more cycles at a long traffic light, they’re stealing people’s time. There must be better ways to raise money for a good cause. Soliciting from traffic islands should be prohibited.
We don’t have the perfect answer for addressing panhandling. As far as we can tell, no American city does. But before the problem in Concord gets to the point where it deters visitors, frightens citizens or harms business, it should be addressed.