Officials offer new approach to panhandling concerns
A man who calls himself Homer panhandles outside Market Basket in Concord on Thursday, May 31, 2012. Homer says, "All I need is $18 so I can refill the cartridge on my inhaler for my emphysema. This is miserable but I still try to keep a happy face." Homer's sign reads, "Gulf Vet, Please Help". Homer says he has applied for several jobs, including at Burger King and Walmart, but says no one will hire him because his only job experience is working as a tree farmer. (AMANDA STEEN / Monitor file)
In the shadow of Worcester Police headquarters, Robert Peters prays, left, as Scott Schaeffer-Duffy solicits money on a traffic island in Lincoln Square during a protest of Worcester's panhandling law; Wednesday, February 13, 2013.
David Pellecchia (center) attends a Concord City Council meeting where an amendment that would ban panhandling was discussed; Monday, February 11, 2013.
(SAMANTHA GORESH / Monitor staff)
Under the latest proposal to address panhandling concerns in Concord, the city council will review an ordinance next month that does not mention the acts of panhandling or asking for money.
Instead, it would ban any person from exchanging items with someone inside a vehicle that’s on a roadway. The ordinance is the third proposal this year that would limit panhandling.
The police said the latest ordinance would address their safety concerns, and advocates agree they’re less worried about its limits on free speech. It is “the best product since we’ve tried to work on this safety issue,” police Chief John Duval said.
Ordinances that would have prohibited “aggressive panhandling” or placed limits on solicitation have drawn opposition from civil rights and homeless advocates. The police said an ordinance was needed because panhandling at intersections and exit ramps is a safety hazard, and city councilors said they’d heard concerns from residents about increased panhandling in Concord. But many advocates said limits on panhandling would infringe on First Amendment rights, marginalize the homeless and criminalize poverty.
After a hearing on those ordinances in February, the city council asked the legal department to address concerns and propose another version. Several councilors said they still wanted to pass an ordinance, but were willing to take extra time to address advocates’ concerns.
The new ordinance wouldn’t regulate speech or prohibit the act of panhandling, City Solicitor Jim Kennedy wrote in a report to the mayor and city council. Individuals would still be permitted to stand along the road and hold signs.
But if someone inside a car gave anything to a person standing outside, both the donor and the recipient would be in violation of the ordinance.
That distinction has pleased advocates who previously spoke out against efforts to limit panhandling.
“This is a significant improvement over the prior proposals because it is looking at conduct as opposed to speech,” said Devon Chaffee, executive director of the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union. “Because, the bottom line is, people have a right to ask for a handout.”
Duval said it’s dangerous for both motorists and pedestrians when cars stop to give money to panhandlers. Panhandling has increased in the past year in Concord, he said, and so have his safety concerns. Existing ordinances wouldn’t necessarily allow him to address that issue, he said, but the latest compromise would.
“So it doesn’t prohibit somebody from holding a sign anywhere in the city or engaging in free speech, but it does address the behavior,” Duval said.
The ordinance wouldn’t have any impact on panhandling or donating to panhandlers on sidewalks, in parking areas or on private property. It also contains exceptions in cases of car accidents, medical emergencies and police officers performing their official duties.
“It’s really focused on people entering into traffic,” City Manager Tom Aspell said last week.
The two previous proposals would have more directly limited the act of asking for money. They included:
∎ A ban on “aggressive panhandling,” such as touching, following or intimidating people to solicit money. It would have prohibited soliciting money from people inside cars, bus stops and parking garages or near banks and ATMs. The misdemeanor-level offense could have come with a sentence of 90 days in jail by the third offense.
∎ Another ordinance, presented in February as a potential compromise, would have banned anyone from soliciting money from motorists when standing along a road, median or exit ramp.
At the February public hearing, Chaffee was one of several advocates who warned city councilors that both panhandling and solicitation are protected speech under the First Amendment. Last week, she said she reviewed a draft of the new proposal, and is more comfortable with its focus on “what the city considers to be a safety hazard, not the speech.”
Maggie Fogarty, a Concord-based advocate for the American Friends Service Committee, had expressed concern that an ordinance against panhandling would discriminate against people simply because they were poor or homeless. She’s met with city officials since the February public hearing, and she’s comfortable with their proposal.
“So I am very grateful that the draft ordinance has progressed to the form that it’s in now, primarily because it does not seem to present the same risks that people would be penalized for the content of their message,” said Fogarty, who is also a board member of the Concord Coalition to End Homelessness.
While Fogarty said she isn’t opposed to the latest ordinance, she hopes the police will consider how to begin enforcement if it passes next month.
“It’s not automatically going to be known to people that this behavior now constitutes a violation, so it’s just in everybody’s interest to educate first,” she said.
Chaffee said she’s still concerned that the violation-level offense would come with a maximum fine of $500. Its enforcement shouldn’t lead to “fines that people who are begging won’t be able to afford,” she said.
“If the ordinance is adopted, we’ll be watching very closely to see how it is enforced and what the penalties are,” Chaffee said.
Fogarty said she’s glad the city council delayed action on previous ordinances.
“We feel like we’ve been truly, respectfully heard,” she said. “So if this goes forward in its current form, we’ll be really pleased.”
The proposed ordinance will go before the city council for a public hearing and vote at its May 13 meeting.