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Concord isn’t alone in considering panhandling restrictions

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.

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.

The city council in Portland, Maine, considered an ordinance last July that would have prevented panhandlers from standing in roadway medians. It had the support of the police chief and the city council’s public safety committee, but advocates said the ordinance would limit First Amendment rights and marginalize the homeless. The Portland City Council voted against it.

“I can see it’s a much larger issue for us to tackle than I originally perceived,” said one Portland city councilor, according to the Portland Press Herald.

A similar scene unfolded in the Concord City Council’s chambers last week, with one difference: The outcome remains uncertain.

Concord city councilors heard public input last week about two different ordinances that would limit panhandling in the city, but sent them back to attorneys for further study.

“We took very seriously the concerns we heard from homeless advocates and other community members, and it’s my hope that we will weigh them carefully when going forward with an amended ordinance,” said Councilor Amanda Grady Sexton, chairwoman of Concord’s Public Safety Board.

Concord isn’t the only city to tackle the issue of panhandling in recent months.

∎ Portland has an “abusive panhandling” ordinance, but it’s difficult to enforce, according to Neighborhood Prosecutor Trish McAllister. She said panhandling in Portland has increased dramatically since last July, when the measure to ban standing in roadway medians was rejected by the city council.

∎ Worcester, Mass., passed two ordinances last month to ban “aggressive panhandling” and soliciting money from motorists.

∎ In Boston, where an aggressive panhandling ordinance has been in place since 1998, city councilors are now considering a ban on panhandling on exit ramps, medians and shoulder areas.

∎ An ordinance has not been considered in Manchester, but the police said they’ve used existing laws to stop panhandlers who cause disruption or block sidewalks and roadways.

The two ordinances considered in Concord last week dealt with panhandling in different ways. The first draft would have banned “aggressive panhandling” that intimidates or harasses residents. A second version, presented as a compromise with concerned advocates, did not contain the words “panhandling” or “aggressive.” Its ban on soliciting money from motorists would have made it illegal to panhandle at exit ramps, intersections and medians.

Representatives from the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union said the second, less-prohibitive ordinance didn’t address their concerns because individuals have a First Amendment right to solicit money.

Concord police Chief John Duval said he hopes an ordinance can still be passed that will address public safety concerns. When motorists stop to give money to panhandlers, he said, they create a traffic hazard. Panhandlers are also unsafe when they stand on a median or cross busy intersections to solicit money, he said.

“It’s not that we’re prohibiting the panhandling . . . but doing so in areas that have the higher potential for injury or safety” concerns, Duval said.

The ordinance that failed a city council vote in Portland last summer was narrow, but still raised alarm from advocates. It would have only banned the act of standing on a median strip.

“It’s a very tough balance, but there’s no question we went at it from a public safety standpoint and I’m still shocked that it failed,” said McAllister, the neighborhood prosecutor.

In Manchester, the police said they’ve used existing laws to deal with aggressive or unsafe panhandling. Officers respond to complaints and can cite panhandlers for disorderly conduct or “conduct in a public place” that blocks the flow of pedestrian traffic, said Gary Simmons, the assistant police chief.

Simmons said the approach “has been satisfactory” in handling aggressive panhandlers who chase after cars or cause a disturbance. But in other cases, the police can only respond to a complaint by asking that a panhandler move to a different location.

The police have thought about requesting an ordinance, but Simmons said they worry about the need to balance First Amendment rights with public safety.

“So we don’t have anything magical here; we’re just trying to use the ordinances or the state laws that currently apply when we can,” he said.

Close eye on Concord

Duval said he’s not aware of other panhandling ordinances in New Hampshire, but he’s heard from law enforcement officials across the state that panhandling has increased in recent months.

Simmons said increased panhandling “isn’t unique to Concord or Manchester.”

Elliott Berry, an attorney with New Hampshire Legal Assistance, said other cities and towns in the state are watching Concord’s actions – especially because Concord is known for offering assistance to the homeless.

“I do think that there are a lot of municipalities that are less supportive (of the homeless) than Concord has been,” Berry said. “I’m concerned that they’ll adopt the stick without the carrot.”

Although Boston has had an aggressive-panhandling ordinance since 1998, Mayor Thomas Menino asked the city council last month to replace it with a broader law that would also ban soliciting on or next to any street.

“The new ordinance is proposed in response to the increase in incidents of aggressive, coercive and unsafe solicitation which have created public safety hazards and intruded on the public’s right to peaceably traverse our public areas,” Menino wrote in a letter to the city council.

The Worcester, Mass., city council passed two ordinances last month: One to limit “aggressive panhandling” and another making it illegal to solicit money at intersections or in median strips.

After a group of activists protested the Worcester ordinances last week, city officials told the Worcester Telegram & Gazette that the police are still educating the public about the ordinance and have not yet enforced it. The Worcester city manager told the Telegram that the ordinances are “respectful to free speech.”

Other cities’ ordinances are similar to the versions considered in Concord last week.

“I think it’s very helpful to look at what other municipalities have adopted with respect to any type of ordinance and, to the extent that it’s possible, contact those city officials,” said Jim Kennedy, Concord’s city solicitor.

‘Workable balance’

Concord city councilors said last week that they are sensitive to the advocates’ concerns but still hope to pass an ordinance. Councilor Keith Nyhan said it should “strike an intelligent, workable balance” between First Amendment rights and public safety.

“Without question, people who have taken the time to contact me . . . or who have stopped me on the street have been unanimously in support of an ordinance to curtail the aggressive panhandling,” Nyhan said.

McAllister said Portland’s ordinance failed because the debate centered on the issue of panhandling rather than public safety.

Nyhan said a similar confusion complicated the issue in Concord last week, when advocates worried that a panhandling ordinance would marginalize Concord’s homeless population.

“I believe there’s a difference between the homeless issue and the panhandling issue, that they’re not one and the same,” he said. “They’re not necessarily connected.”

Duval said some panhandlers in Concord come from out of town, and some work together, rotating locations and shifts. One officer recently spoke with a couple that had driven from Manchester to panhandle at the Concord Walmart, he said.

Councilor Allen Bennett said he’d like to put an end to that type of activity.

“There are people out there that are doing this to make money, and that’s what I’m after,” he said. “That’s why I’m going after it. I don’t have a problem with someone who’s legitimately having a hard time.”

Grady Sexton, who worked with concerned advocates to reach a compromise before last week’s city council meeting, said city officials will address concerns before moving forward. But she said other residents still want an ordinance.

“I’ve heard from constituents who were disappointed that we weren’t able to pass something . . . and I let them know that we were going to continue to work to craft a very narrow ordinance that accomplishes the goal of making sure that Concord is safe by banning panhandling in the right-of-way areas and other heavy traffic areas,” she said.

Councilor Candace Bouchard said she’s worried about unsafe panhandling behavior, such as approaching cars or following people to ask for money.

“But someone standing with a sign . . . that’s not so much a concern of mine,” Bouchard said. “More the behavior.”

Councilor Mark Coen said he thinks another approach could work in addition to an ordinance: “Do not contribute to the panhandler, contribute to social service or an agency instead . . . they’ll go away.”

Berry said he’s happy that Concord officials are working to address advocates’ concerns, but panhandling is free speech.

“Part of living in a free society, I’m afraid, is that we all have to endure things that we find make us uncomfortable,” he said.

The city “can’t target a particular type of speech,” said Barbara Keshen, an attorney with the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union. Manchester’s use of existing laws to stop aggressive and disruptive behavior is a thoughtful approach, she said.

While Duval still has public safety concerns, he said last week’s public hearing was productive.

“It was great conversation and great testimony because the issue really needs to be fleshed out, and at the end of the day what I’m looking for is an ordinance that protects the safety of all our citizens, including those that are attempting to solicit money,” he said.

Kennedy said he will “employ a learned process” to develop another ordinance.

“I’m optimistic that we can come up with language that is in line with what the community would like to see with respect to regulating panhandling activity,” he said.

(Laura McCrystal can be reached at 369-3312 or
lmccrystal@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @lmccrystal.)

Legacy Comments12

Panhandling will exist as long as there are people who are willing to support it.

Just a heads up for you fashionistas out there. The US Postal Service has decided to go into the fashion biz. They will be coming out with a brand called Rain, Heat and Snow. They will rent a showroom in the garment distric of NYC to sell their clothing. In 2012 the postal service lost 15.9 billion.They have reneged on paying their employees pensions in some cases and benefits. Yet they seem to feel that they now can go into the fashinon biz. One has to wonder where the money will come from for the new venture. One also has to wonder why the Postal Service thinks they can do a better job than LL Bean and also who the heck will wear this clothing. Maybe the panhandlers will find this clothing line useful.

Seems like Post Office Gone Wild to me. I'd be fine with Mon., Wed., and Fri. delivery. Maybe just Sat. delivery. They should scale the whole thing down by charging only one first class rate - that would get rid of most of the junk mail, save energy, and cut spending. When I was a kid the post offices were in the mom and pop stores - the corporate big money geniuses screwed that up too.

Same here earthling. I came across the Waltons on TV the other night and decided to watch it. Ike had his post office in his store. I remembered watching it what a great program it was. The stories were terrific as each one taught a lesson. You do not see a lot of that on TV these days.

Also, when I got my driver's license in 1964 the town clerk's office was in her home in Northwood. There's no reason why we couldn't do that again - especially if most vehicle registration renewals occurred online through a state website. Then dealers could register or transfer plates on the state site for the new vehicle and supply the plate sticker. Actually the inspection station could supply the plate sticker (if it's even needed - we can't drive the car anyway without an inspection sticker). My preference would be that the feds develop a standardized vehicle registration program for any state that wanted to use it. I wouldn't be surprised if the info for every vehicle in the country would fit in my $400 laptop. Someone said that NH spent $millions reprogramming their ancient MV computer system from back in the 1970s.

Keith Nyhan revealed the real nature and fraudulent public safety pretext being used for our current anti-panhandling initiative when he called it “an ordinance to curtail THE AGGRESSIVE PANHANDLING.” Necessarily, “aggressive panhandling” must refer to something more than “panhandling,” but there is no evidence whatsoever of “aggression” -- only that our beggars have shifted from our sidewalks -- which many Concord residents avoid -- to our roads leading to and from shopping parking areas, where increasingly-prosperous-but-lazy Concordians are more likely to be -- driving, not walking. The poor have caught up to us and we don’t like it. This is a stop-bothering-our consciences ordinance. Shameful.

Common-Grind, Are you saying that you approve of Panhandling? Do you think more should be done to assist the poor and homeless in Concord? If so, in what areas?

Can you imagine if this was happening when Bush was president. Marland would have a panhandler and Bush in every cartoon. The panhandlers are totally invisible to Marland, I wonder why, not. Where is Mr. I won't rest until everyone has a job? Out on the golf course with a $1,000/Hour golf instructor. Obama is so much like the middle class, not. Obama doesn't care about the middle class. How many middle class people you know had a 17 Christmas vacation in Hawaii in December and a split vacation 1 in Florida and 1 in Aspen? Non. Obama isn't anything like the middle class. Obama could care less about the middle class. Why doesn't the Monitor report this. Would be because they are extremely biased?

The comments attributed to Councilor Coen made the most sense to me. If no one contributes, they may go away. I wonder if some of the legit homeless resources would consider standing alongside the panhandlers? But reality is that public assistance & charitable orgs cannot supply items such as alcohol, cigarettes or drugs. People trapped in the throes of addiction may do anything to quell those fires. And an alcoholic whose supply is suddenly cut off can die. There is no cut and dried response to social issues.

Carry some pens, and when someone asks you for money, give them a pen, and tell them to go fill out a job application.

“But someone standing with a sign . . . that’s not so much a concern of mine,” that’s a good me-me statement Councilor Candice Bouchard. Make sure the law allows those people standing on the side of the road shaking signs and yelling at cars to honk their horns at your political fund raiser remains legal. As long as you, Councilor Allen Bennett and the other politicians are getting the money (or the votes that make you money) it must remain OK. If it is really a safety issue then I hope not to see those fund raisers, young girls in bikinis on the road side trying to get people to come in for a car/motorcycle wash or those fireman roadblocks where they are standing “IN” the road asking for money. I saw a person in Concord dressed up like the statue of liberty on the roadside jumping around waving their arms as an advertisement for the tax business. Why is that person doing it if it is not to get you to look away from your driving responsibility. Will all those flashing advertising signs and billboards be outlawed for safeties sake, any chance they are there because someone is “doing this to make money”.

I disagree Jim with your take that a HS having a yearly carwash at Arnie's should ever be compared to panhandling. They do it once a year, usually to raise money for a sports team. I see the firemen also have a drive once a year. So comparing that to a panhandler who is there everyday is not the same for me. Maybe panhandlers should be required to get a permit at no cost, so they can panhandle from the state. Just a matter of time before a motorist hits one of them.

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