[Hpn] Editorial on Colo. Spgs. anti-panhandling

Fri, 05 May 2000 09:48:22 -0400 (EDT)

The below is an editorial in our local daily. Their editorial policy is, to 
put it politely, is a bit Right of center.
Matt Parkhouse, RN; Colorado Springs, CO

<<OUR VIEW: A firm 'no' will do

Springs learns lessons on how - and how not - to curb panhandlers

An enlightening report in Thursday's Gazette revealed a classic case of the 
unintended consequences of reflexive lawmaking. 

A number of months ago, Colorado Springs City Hall decided to do something 
about motorists' complaints that panhandlers were pestering them from the 
roadside, particularly along some freeway off-ramps that proved profitable to 
those seeking spare change. You know, the kind of folks who hold handwritten, 
cardboard-cutout signs pledging to work for food - but who often enough seem 
all too happy to skip both the work and the food for a quick handout through 
a passing motorist's window. 

So, the City Council made it illegal to panhandle on freeway exit ramps in 
October. The official premise of the law was traffic safety though, of 
course, it's not like there had been a spate of vehicle-panhandler accidents. 
No, the real motive was to get those folks out of motorists' faces.

It worked. Sort of. The gantlet of panhandlers that vehicles once had to run 
are pretty much gone. The pandhandlers themselves aren't, though. They just 
moved on to the next convenient venue, downtown.

As noted in The Gazette's report, downtown merchants say so many panhandlers 
have moved in that it's hurting business. "People can't come in here without 
being harassed," said a worker at one coffee house.

This time, the private civic and business group, Downtown Partnership, 
decided to do something. It has printed 100 door posters for businesses to 
put up - "Make a Change, Keep Your Change," the signs say - and 300 
anti-panhandling placards to be posted beside cash registers. The idea is, in 
a sense, to empower patrons so that they know they don't have to shell out 
pocket money just because someone asks for it once they leave the 
establishment. When shoppers comply with the entreaties, it only further 
emboldens the panhandlers and encourages them to stick around - turning away 
other prospective patrons.

We've long maintained it shouldn't be illegal to ask a passing stranger for a 
spare quarter any more than it should be illegal to ask what time it is. In 
turn, the solicited passerby should feel free to give - or not to. In our 
experience, too many of us don't feel free enough to avail ourselves of that 
latter option. Some of us feel guilty if we turn down a request from a 
disheveled, seemingly dispossessed person. In reality, that person may or may 
not have an alternative, and especially in our boom economy, it would be 
naive not to think twice, to say the least, before reaching for our wallets 
or pocketbooks.

Certainly, no one should feel browbeaten into contributing to what might be 
nothing more than a another installment on a dissipated lifestyle.

That's why the Downtown Partnership's campaign is laudable. Moreover, it's 
realistic - whereas the city's move was not. We could have guessed last 
October's legislated crackdown only would move the problem somewhere else.

Coercion not only is wrong in a free society, but it also can backfire. A 
polite but firm "no" usually does the trick.