Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Should panhandling be illegal in Manatee County?

I attended the Manatee County Commission “workshop” on the proposed panhandling ordinance. Commissioner Ron Gettman chaired the meeting. He was joined by representatives from most law enforcement agencies.
He was careful to begin the meeting by pointing out that this was not about homelessness, the ordinance was about panhandlers. The primary justification offered for the ordinance was that there had been complaints from the community. Gettman also said that it was a public safety issue.
A powerpoint presentation was then given describing all of the current financial assistance that the commission is currently providing for homeless services. Manatee County is currently providing approximately 1.4 million dollars to social service agencies to work on homelessness issues.
The county attorney then outlined the proposed ordinance. Essentially, the ordinance would outlaw: 1) “aggresive panhandling,” and 2. any solicitation conducted within 15 feet of any roadway. This ordinance may be presented to the full county commission for a public hearing on March 13, 2007. The law enforcement community voiced their support for the ordinance. A representative from a homeless coalition pointed out that their might be problems with the proposed penalties, and suggested that violators be required to perform community service.The floor was then opened for public comment.
Approximately ten people spoke in favor of the ordinance. Some of the comments had little to do with panhandling but instead focused on other issues, such as public urination or campsites built on private property. A realtor complained that the panhandlers were depressing the home market. Others complained about enabling the lifestyle choices of those who used solicited money for cigarettes or alcohol. There were also legitimate complaints about panhandlers that were disturbing particular neighborhoods.
I spoke out against the ordinance. A similar law from St. Petersburg has been declared unconstitutional. In 2002, Cook County, Illinois paid $475,000 to settle a lawsuit filed after persons were arrested under a similar unconstitutional ordinance. I also argued that jail beds should be treated like a scarce resource and not used to confine those who have “lifestyles” that we disagree with. Manatee County will be responsible for paying for legal representation for anyone jailed under the new ordinance. Furthermore, anyone arrested will be responsible for court costs and other fees. Failure to pay will result in additional consequences, such as further incarceration or driver's license suspension. The Suncoast Partnership to end Homelessness is willing to work with Manatee County and law enforcement to come up with creative solutions to the problem that do not involve criminalization.

For the Bradenton Herald article on the workshop, go to:

Here is a letter to the editor from Adrienne B. Lazeroff, executive director of Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness, serving Manatee and Sarasota counties.

As Manatee County considers an anti-panhandling ordinance, we must stop to ask ourselves, is criminalization the solution to the problem?

We can all agree that panhandling impacts our community, but there is a lot of disagreement on the solution for curbing it. The solutions that we seek should address the underlying problem: poverty.

When people are arrested and charged under panhandling ordinances, they develop a criminal record, making it more difficult to obtain employment or housing, thereby exacerbating poverty and its problems. It is also paramount that we consider the effects of criminalization on the accessibility of needed services, as such measures often result in moving people away from services.

Our community needs to consider constructive approaches, such as outreach (directing those who panhandle to mental health or substance abuse services). We should be working together to achieve real solutions to prevent and end poverty, such as dedicating more resources to affordable and transitional housing, health care, and the creation of jobs with a living wage.

Here is the editorial from the Sarasota Herald Tribune from 2/9/07
The risk of banning beggars
County needs to consider potential costs of ordinance

Adam Tebrugge doesn't hold popular views about Manatee County's proposed panhandling ordinance, but they warrant a full discussion before the County Commission votes on the plan.

Tebrugge, a member of the Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness and an assistant public defender, was the only person who spoke against the ordinance at a forum this week. He says the proposal may prove more costly than its proponents foresee.

The ordinance, drafted by a task force of law-enforcement officers and attorneys led by County Commissioner Ron Getman, would ban people from panhandling within 15 feet of a public road in the county and its cities. Also targeted are beggars who threaten or intimidate people on roadsides and in public places, including business parking lots.

Violators would be warned, then face up to 60 days in jail and/or a fine of up to $500.

For safety reasons, the restrictions also would apply to people using sidewalks for charity fund-raisers such as car washes.

As many speakers pointed out this week, panhandlers who create traffic hazards and harass passers-by pose a genuine problem. County intervention is justified.

But Tebrugge warns that Manatee's proposal could face a costly legal challenge. He cited a Second District Court of Appeal ruling in 1995 declaring a St. Petersburg panhandling ordinance unconstitutional, and a $475,000 settlement that Cook County, Ill., paid in 2002 as the result of a lawsuit involving its panhandling ordinance.

Getman asked the county's legal staff to examine those cases. Other issues raised by Tebrugge deserve a closer look, too.

Tebrugge pointed out that those arrested would be entitled to legal representation, an expense that would most likely be borne by taxpayers. And panhandlers who are jailed will take up increasingly scarce bed space -- again, at a cost to taxpayers.

It's possible, of course, that this ordinance will generate few arrests or jail terms and serve, instead, as a giant "Panhandlers Unwelcome" sign that prompts most beggars to leave Manatee.

But before county officials commit to displaying that sign with this ordinance, they should be certain they have a strong grasp of what could go wrong.

In the meantime, all Manatee residents should heed the advice of advocates for the poor: Don't give money to panhandlers. The donations are better directed to local agencies equipped to help the needy. Handing cash or coins to panhandlers, some of whom use the money to feed alcohol and/or drug addictions, will only perpetuate the problem.

More and more places are making it tougher for those who end up living on the streets. Yea, they adapt and move on to more friendly places. The police are always the first indication of the friendliness of a community. If they respect human dignity, there is kindness by action. If not, there is harassment and unreasonable fines to get homeless to move on. Out of sight, out of mind. So sad. We need to start by seeing the world as the homeless view it.
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