People asking for money on the streets of cities and towns goes way back. Some reports state the term “panhandling” seemingly originated in the ’30s when people from the Oklahoma/Texas panhandle migrated to California to escape the Dust Bowl, often with nothing left to their name. And apparently, according to the Supreme Court, panhandling is a protected right under the First Amendment and is considered a form of free speech.
Many cities and towns have ordinances prohibiting panhandling. Some like Hot Springs, Ark., and Pompano Beach, Fla., have had those ordinances challenged in court. So what’s a municipality to do when it is concerned about the safety and well-being of its residents?
Several city and town officials share what they’ve done and how their approaches are working.
Grand Island, N.Y.
After complaints by citizens, Grand Island’s town council enacted an ordinance against aggressive panhandling earlier this year. Town Supervisor John Whitney said Grand Island can’t prohibit panhandling, “It’s a protected right,” but limiting the manner in which and where it’s done is what the town’s ordinance prohibits.
“They can’t come up to you at an ATM or a bank, can’t come up to you in front of stores or in an aggressive manner,” Whitney explained.
Grand Island had citizens reporting that they were approached and felt threatened.
“They were saying, ‘I’m afraid,’” Whitney recalled. So the town held a public meeting and many people showed up and asked town officials to do something about it.
“Some had physical encounters,” he reported.
Grand Island modeled its ordinance after similar ordinances in Buffalo and Rochester, N.Y., where aggressive panhandling laws have held up against legal challenges. Grand Island is close to nearby Niagara, N.Y.
Whitney admitted the law could be fairly hard to enforce because by the time police are summoned the perpetrators have likely left, but Grand Island has had a “marked drop-off in complaints subsequent to the ordinance being enacted.” Therefore, he feels having the ordinance in place has met with some success.
When asked about any disadvantages to the ordinance, he responded, “I suppose if it was challenged, it would cost money to the courts, but we’ve tried hard not to infringe on rights while trying to protect regular citizens as well as those panhandling — as long as it’s done in a civil manner.”
Whitney said municipalities will have to examine the needs of their individual communities. What would apply to a small bedroom community like Grand Island wouldn’t necessarily work in a large municipality.
But at least in Grand Island the problems residents were experiencing “seem to have abated.”
Coral Springs, Fla.
Coral Springs’ ordinance is not a panhandling ordinance per se — it, instead, prohibits any kind of solicitation at 15 major intersections.
Coral Springs Media Relations Coordinator Alessandra Assenza said she spoke to members of the police department about the city’s ordinance. The police told her their priority is to protect residents, visitors and workers. The ordinance, which was adopted in 2013, “prohibits right of way solicitation not specific to panhandling on certain major streets.”
Assenza said the police used “a data-based methodology” and focused on major intersections they considered most dangerous. The city did extensive research that proved which intersections were the most dangerous. Initially, 25 major intersections were examined but only 15 were included in the ordinance.
The Coral Springs ordinance states there should be no approach of vehicles at these intersections or within 200 feet of the lateral curb for the purpose of fundraising, advertising or solicitation. Assenza gave an example of a group holding a car wash and said its members couldn’t approach the vehicles for the purpose of cleaning their windows, handing out a coupon or seeking a donation.
If an individual or individuals are soliciting on the sidewalk, a vehicle has to pull off the road and park to pay for an item or make a donation. Assenza said the 200-feet restriction came from research about the distance needed for a vehicle to safely stop without hitting a person or tree.
She said the ordinance was initiated by a commissioner who reported that someone had stepped off the curb into the intersection and he almost lost control trying to avoid hitting them. So the intent of the ordinance was “to significantly lower the threat and increase public safety on major roads.”
While Coral Springs’ ordinance isn’t specifically because of or to deter panhandling, it applies to panhandlers as well. Violators of this rights-of-way solicitation ordinance could be subject to a $150 fine.
Assenza related this advice from the police who told her, “We’d recommend a complete analysis of the area and area roadways and base (actions) on the data you find.”
If someone questions the reason for the ordinance, Assenza added, “We have actual proof — tangible data — they can go in and see.”
The city of Perryville also just enacted an ordinance against aggressive panhandling at the start of the year, but in Perryville’s case, it decided to be proactive rather than because it was experiencing a panhandling problem.
“We wanted to get ahead of the situation,” said City Administrator Brent Buerck. “I believe part of our job is to monitor and observe what’s happening in other communities because it’s probably going to happen to all of
Buerck was aware of what’s been happening in other communities and had experienced aggressive panhandling when visiting other more metropolitan areas. His philosophy is “if we wait until we have a problem to solve a problem, that doesn’t really work for us.”
When developing the ordinance, he said, “We walked a fine line — we didn’t prohibit panhandling while making it safe for the citizens of Perryville but also for the panhandlers.”
Some actions prohibited in the ordinance, as it defines aggressive panhandling, include panhandlers can’t threaten with bodily harm or the threat of criminal activity; can’t persist in asking after being told no; can’t block passage; can’t touch a person; or can’t render any service to a vehicle without first getting the consent of the owner-operator.
It also restricts locations where panhandling can occur such as not within 50 feet of an ATM or bank entrance; within 30 feet of the entrance and exit of any commercial establishment; at any sidewalk cafe; within 50 feet of any school; at bus, train or cab stops; within 20 feet of a crosswalk; and within any municipal-owned building, park, golf course or playground.
Panhandling is also prohibited before 7 a.m. and after 8 p.m. Buerck believes the city needed to be proactive and have an ordinance already in place when needed so “it doesn’t look like it’s in response to someone or something.”
He said if the city is acting in response to an event, it could get the city caught into age, sex, race or religion challenges.
“If it becomes about a specific individual, it’s harder — doing it beforehand doesn’t give credence to any of those things.”
Buerck feels Perryville is just exhibiting “good proactive city government.”
“It’s a common sense approach where citizens can still feel safe but also didn’t absolutely prohibit panhandling, which wouldn’t sustain a challenge,” he said.
Buerck advises other cities to consider taking a proactive stance as well. “It’s a good idea to get ahead of issues before your city has to face them so the community understands, the police understand and those doing it are aware of what the rules are.” He added Perryville is not trying to be punitive: “We want to coexist peacefully. If a person is unaware of the rules, they’d be informed, but if push comes to shove, there are fines.”