Editorial: Concord’s new panhandling ordinance deserves support
Panhandling has become a problem that Concord residents, visitors and business owners want the city to address. Motorists are forced to pass sign-wielding panhandlers posted like sentries at shopping plaza exits or wait in traffic stalled by a beggar who steps into the road to accept a handout. Pedestrians have been annoyed and sometimes intimidated by panhandlers who ask, sometimes persistently, for money. Yet there’s no crime in asking for help.
No ordinance, no matter how well-meaning, can interfere with anyone’s free speech rights. That makes regulating or prohibiting panhandling problematic at best and clearly illegal if done ham-handedly. Courts have repeatedly, and rightly, overturned panhandling ordinances on First Amendment grounds. But that doesn’t mean doing nothing is the only option.
The proposed panhandling ordinance that the Concord City Council will consider next month demonstrates what can be accomplished when city officials, the police, advocates for the homeless and defenders of free speech work together in an atmosphere of mutual respect. The ordinance, drafted by City Solicitor Jim Kennedy, does not even use the word “panhandling.” It addresses not speech, which is constitutionally protected, but behavior, which is not.
The ordinance would bar anyone from exchanging an item or items with someone inside a vehicle on a roadway. It penalizes equally the person soliciting aid and the person proffering it because the actions of both result in a safety hazard. It applies equally to panhandlers and charity fundraisers but not, of course, to police officers who, for instance, receive driver’s licenses and dispense tickets from the roadway.
The proposed ordinance deserves council support. It won’t end panhandling on sidewalks or private property – though the owners of private property can forbid panhandling and ask the police for help in enforcing the ban. But panhandlers, some of whom come to the city from elsewhere for that purpose, solicit at intersections because it is profitable to do so. Banning that activity, as the ordinance does, may lead to an overall decline in panhandling. That would be a good thing for shoppers, merchants and panhandlers.
Giving someone money that may be spent on alcohol, cigarettes or drugs does them no good, and it only perpetuates a problem rooted in homelessness, substance abuse, mental illness, unemployment and the lack of truly affordable housing.
The best way to help panhandlers is to donate to organizations that work to feed, clothe, treat and house them and put them on a path to employment.