Panhandling permits: HPNer opines on merchants' homeless sweeps

Tom Boland (wgcp@earthlink.net)
Mon, 26 Apr 1999 19:17:22 -0700 (PDT)


A Homeless People's Network listmember gets QUOTED in the "not everyone
agrees" section at the end of the article below, about "merchants
discouraging panhandling".

The HPNer's email to the reporter (as she researched her topic) follows.
It includes a longer quote, plus cites a State COURT RULING and LINKS on
the USA's nationwide push to drive panhandlers from business districts.

I welcome your comments.  May all have all we truly need. -- Tom Boland

http://www.amcity.com/orlando/stories/1999/04/26/story3.html
FWD  [USA, Florida]  Orlando Business Journal  - April 26, 1999

     BEGGING FOR A CHANGE

     A farewell to alms? Local merchants
     look for ways to stem tide of panhandlers.

     Jill Krueger - Staff Writer

ORLANDO -- Michael Brunner, behind $270 on his rent, has taken to the streets.

Wearing an American flag shirt, his city-approved panhandling registration
card hanging from a safety pin, he is perched at Church Street and Orange
Avenue with a cardboard "help" sign and a Styrofoam cup.

On this night, donations are scarce.

A few months from now, they may be nonexistent.

Orlando's downtown merchants are rallying behind a proposed campaign asking
customers not to give spare change to panhandlers.

The idea: Dry up the spare change at the spigot and force panhandlers to
move on.

"As long as you have pedestrians giving them money, that's encouraging more
and more panhandlers because they are getting what they want," says Daisy
Staniszkis, assistant director of the Downtown Development Board, which
supports the measure. "If you quit giving them money, they will go
elsewhere."

Disappearing panhandlers?

At first blush, it's hard to find evidence of panhandling in downtown
Orlando. Only about 333 of Orlando's estimated 6,000 homeless men, women
and children have a panhandling registration card from the Orlando Police
Department.

In fact, the number of regular Orange Avenue panhandlers has dwindled
during the day from about four to just one -- a panhandler known as the
"Cat Man" who carries a sign asking for help to feed his cat.

That's not surprising: Orlando already has one of the toughest panhandling
laws in the country. Panhandling at a bus or train stop is barred, as is
asking for money in a public park, a fairground or sports facility; at an
ATM machine or on private property.

In addition, the panhandler cannot block the path of the person solicited,
follow a person who walks away, panhandle in a group of two or more -- or
panhandle without the free registration card from Orlando police.

"In a week's time, we easily arrest 10 panhandlers," says downtown day
shift bicycle unit Sgt. Donna Rivera.

Soliciting trouble

But despite those laws, merchants say panhandlers still are driving
customers away.

They cite men who camp out in front of office doors all day long, others
who solicit drivers in parking garages and still others who have approached
diners in sidewalk cafes.

"They literally come over the barrier and ask you for money," says Margaret
Labar, manager of One Stop Travel Center on Orange Avenue, who recently was
asked for change while eating lunch outdoors. "And you hate to say no."

Adds Guy Revelle, vice president of Millennium Management Group, which owns
Meg's Tavern, Leopard Lounge and Ybor's Martini bar, "Our managers are
having to get pretty involved to get them to take off and quit bothering
the customers. We've had a couple of situations where we had to call the
police and have them removed."

As for the apparent dearth of panhandlers in recent days, business owners
say a recent crackdown by the Orlando Police Department has taken some off
the streets, while warmer weather has prompted others to travel north.

But, they say, the panhandling problem will be back.

OPD's Rivera agrees.

Once arrested, she says, "They don't stay (in jail) for very long. They are
out the next day." Judges can't keep space in the jail for petty criminals,
she says, and they don't fine panhandlers either -- because they can't
afford to pay it.

Nor can the city tighten up its existing regulations without running afoul
of the panhandler's First Amendment rights.

None of this is welcome news to the Downtown Orlando Partnership Merchants
Committee, which is working to bring more visitors into downtown by touting
the area's "user-friendly" atmosphere.

But, says committee chairman Tim Holcomb, "It affects customers to the
point where they are either intimidated or they feel they don't have to
deal with it. It has a negative effect on their impression of what downtown
is."

Talking back

So downtown merchants have decided to take the panhandling problem into
their own hands.

Among the suggested approaches: putting signs in store windows, handing out
fliers and hiring a person to stand outside businesses asking customers not
to give their change to panhandlers, but to social services that benefit
the homeless instead.

In addition, they are considering hiring "friendly ambassadors" who would
escort people to their cars.

The proposal has gotten an enthusiastic support from an unexpected source:
representatives from local homeless services like the Coalition for the
Homeless and Christian Service Center for Central Florida.

They say giving money to panhandlers only perpetuates their dangerous
street life: In the last 18 months, four transients were killed -- three by
other transients and a fourth by a street sweeper.

To be sure, not everyone embraces the idea. Norma Beasley, owner of Champ's
Bakery on Central Avenue in Orlando, says, "They're just human beings."

Tom Boland, founder of Bread & Jam Inc., a 10-year-old homeless-run
nonprofit in Cambridge, Mass., adds, "Homeless people have as much right to
be in business districts as anyone else."

Further, Brunner says the need for panhandling has grown as social service
budgets are tightened and welfare rolls squeezed.

For instance, the 37-year-old, who has AIDS, gets food from the Centaur
AIDS support group every month, plus a $500 check from the government. But
social assistance does not cover the $600 a month he pays for rent, or any
of his other expenses.

"I'm not greedy," he says. "I make enough and leave."

At OPD, though, Rivera says the same First Amendment that secures Brunner's
right to beg on Orlando's streets also protects the businesses.

"As transients have the right to express their need for help, businesses
have the right to ask people not to help them," she says.

END FORWARD

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[The HPNer's EMAIL to the reporter as she researched panhandling included
what follows.

The reporter wanted opinions on an initiative by Orlando merchants called
"Don't Give Spare Change, Make a Real Change". It includes. according to
the reporter, "passing out flyers and hiring a full-time person to stand in
front of businesses and tell people not to give panhandlers change, but
rather give the money to social services."]

QUOTE ME:

Many municipalities have been passing "sidewalk behavior" laws to keep
homeless people out of downtown Business Improvement Districts.  These
measures have done little to decrease panhandling or haomelessness in
business districts.  In short, they have failed.

NYC and San Frnacisco are among the cities with the most aggressive
policing of homeless people, and the Mayors of both cities have faced
ongoing protests of "homeless sweeps".  Orlando officials and business
people need to think hard and long before taking a similar tack with the
poor among us.

Courts continue to restrict and overturn panhandling ordinances.  Towns
which practice "homeless sweeps" can pay a high price -- in settlements and
Public Relations nightmares -- for violating homeless people's civil
liberties.

To stop homeless people from asking for money or help is cruel, inhumane
and unconstitutional.  Homeless people have as much right to be in business
districts as anyone else.  Our communities need to end poverty, not
criminalize poor people.

HOMELESS SWEEPS LINKS & COURT RULING

Also search http://Dejanews.com "past posts" option using the search-string
"panhandling AND Boland".  http://Dogpile.com is a good search engine to
check for *press coverage on "aggressive panhandling" AND "necessity
defense".  Also try the search-string "Business Improvement District".

I reccomend that you check out the *National Law Center on Homelessness and
Poverty at <http://www.clchp.org> for news and views opposing
anti-panhandling laws.  One example:

"Victory in Benefit v. Cambridge:

On May 14, 1997 the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court invalidated a
Massachusetts state law that prohibited "wandering abroad and begging," and
"go[ing] about ... in ... public places for the purpose of begging or to
receive alms." The Law Center filed a friend of the court brief in this
case in support of Craig Benefit, a homeless man who had been arrested
three times under the law for peaceful begging in Cambridge, Mass. Mr.
Benefit, represented by the ACLU of Massachusetts, challenged the law as a
violation of his right to freedom of speech guaranteed by the First
Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

In a strongly worded unanimous opinion, the state's highest court held (1)
that peaceful begging involves communicative activity protected by the
First Amendment, (2) that the criminal sanction imposed was an improper
viewpoint-based restriction on speech in a public forum based on the
content of the message conveyed, and (3) that the statute was not
constitutionally viable when subjected to strict scrutiny. The court
emphasized that the prohibition on begging not only infringes upon the
right of free communication, it also suppresses "an even broader right --
the right to engage fellow human beings with the hope of receiving aid and
compassion." The court soundly rejected that state's argument that the
statute supports a compelling government interest in preventing crime and
maintaining safe streets."

Also search for and visit the *ACLU web pages, and the *National Coalition
for the Homeless site.

NCH has a homeless civil rights project listed, directed by *Michael Stoops
at <nch@ari.net>; his phone number is also listed in the NCH pages.

Miami and Jacksonville (among a growing number of cities) have made cash
settlements with homeless people, as I recall, because their "homeless
sweeps" laws and practices did not meet consittutional muster.  Pay
particular attention to the seminal "Pottinger v Miami" (sp?) case.

Also check out "broken windows" and "quality of life" policing tactics.

Hope this helps. -- Tom Boland <wgcp@earthlink.net>

[Ok, I confess.  I was the HPNer the reporter emailed and quoted.]

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