Concord panhandling ordinance referred to further study
The room was full for the Concord City Council's public hearing to discuss an amendment that could potentially ban panhandling; Monday, February 11, 2013. (SAMANTHA GORESH / Monitor staff)
Concord’s legal department will continue working on a panhandling ordinance, after the city council heard concerns last night from advocates about two different proposals to limit panhandling in the city.
“I think it’s important that we try to find that balance between the public safety issue as well as the rights of the individual, so I think taking a little more time . . . tightening up that language may be worth the extra 30-day wait,” said Mayor Jim Bouley.
Under an ordinance proposed last month, panhandlers would have been unable to solicit money from people who were in their cars, inside bus stops and parking garages, or near banks and ATMs. It also would prohibit panhandling “in an aggressive manner,” such as touching, following or intimidating people to solicit money. Several advocates have raised concern about that proposal, and many spoke against it last night.
A second draft of the ordinance presented last night, which City Solicitor Jim Kennedy called a “compromise or maybe a first step in addressing the panhandling issue,” limited the ban to soliciting people along the side of the road.
The second draft of the ordinance did not contain any reference to the terms “aggressive” or “panhandling.” It also limited penalties to a violation and up to $500 fine, as opposed to a previously proposed misdemeanor and up to 90 days in jail by the third offense.
Devon Chaffee, executive director of the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union, said the narrower version of the ordinance did not address her concern by focusing only on panhandling along the side of the road.
“That’s actually one of the provisions in the original proposal that most concerned us from a civil liberties and First Amendment perspective,” she said.
The ordinance defines solicitation as “the spoken, written or printed word . . . (for) the purposes of immediately obtaining money or any other thing of value.”
Chaffee suggested that an ordinance would prohibit children from setting up lemonade stands, groups from advertising car washes and businesses from sending employees to stand near the road with a sign.
Those actions – and panhandling – are protected under First Amendment rights, Chaffee said.
Ward 10 Councilor Fred Keach said he does not sympathize with the act of panhandling because Concord has many resources for the homeless.
“But I do worry about the restrictions of the First Amendment and that’s an important thing to me,” Keach said. “Can I not hold up a sign on the side of the road when I want to be elected?”
Police Chief John Duval said panhandling in Concord has increased in the past year. He, Kennedy and other city officials met with advocates in the past week to revise the narrower ordinance and address concerns.
“I think this amended ordinance will give us the tools we need to address the safety not only for the motorists, but for those soliciting from the motorists,” Duval said.
The Rev. David Keller, co-chairman of the Concord Coalition to End Homelessness, spoke against the original ordinance, but said he supported the altered version because it addressed public safety issues.
Keller said he’s still worried about helping people so they don’t need to panhandle.
“I would like for all the people in this room this evening . . . to imagine the degree of desperation which we would need to experience that would get us to stand at a street corner for a few hours holding a sign asking strangers for money,” Keller said.
Elliott Berry, an attorney with New Hampshire Legal Assistance, asked the council to hold off on a final vote.
“I think the new amendment is a vast improvement,” he said of the amended ordinance introduced last night. “And I think with a little more work it can maybe even meet constitutional requirements.”
Last night, city councilors asked Kennedy to continue working on a proposed ordinance and communicate with the concerned advocates.
“I think a lot of questions have been answered but there are still more questions out there,” said at-large Councilor Steve Shurtleff.
A homeless man, who identified himself as David but declined to give his last name to the city council, said he has been homeless since December. He stays at the cold weather shelters and eats at the Friendly Kitchen.
“I think part of the issue here is the stigma involved in two words: homeless and panhandling,” he said. “When you talk about panhandling you have this vision of bums asking for change. It’s a word in itself that brings us the negative connotation and the visions in our head of wrong-doing and making people uneasy.”
Ward 7 Councilor Keith Nyhan said he and other city councilors are not trying to disenfranchise the homeless. But, he said, there is a difference between caring for the homeless and having concerns about panhandling.
“And it’s the same people who have created these organizations that have made Concord a friendly place for the homeless that don’t want to be hit up for change walking down Main Street,” Nyhan said.
But Berry told the city council that individuals have a First Amendment right to panhandle.
“I think your hands are pretty tied by the Constitution in that case,” he said.