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.
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.
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.