There’s a balancing act involved in restricting panhandling. Go too far, and you’ve got an unenforceable ordinance that might even violate Americans’ right to free speech. Do nothing, and panhandling may proliferate to the point where some people don’t even want to get out of their car to walk into a store.
That’s the challenge facing Crescent City Council members when they consider a proposal from Police Chief Doug Plack.
It seeks to prohibit “aggressive” panhandling, and it’s hard to imagine very many people opposing that. Citizens should be able to go about their business without feeling threatened, and frankly that’s not always the case right now in Crescent City, especially when they walk to and from businesses near homeless encampments.
On the other hand, you can’t legislate everything. Some people would prefer never to be solicited for money from strangers, but they learn to cope with it. A simple response of “yes” or “no” does the trick most of the time to conclude a brief, respectful encounter between two human beings.
So the issue really comes down to what constitutes “aggressive” panhandling. Plack’s first draft targeted street musicians, and it was prudent of officials to conclude that this went too far. Some of its other proposed prohibitions, however, seem appropriate:
• No panhandling from sunset to sunrise, unless it’s done on private property with the owner’s consent. A stranger’s solicitation in the dark is much more likely to come across as intimidating. It’s reasonable to limit solicitors to day shifts.
• No panhandling at any time outside financial institutions or automated teller machines. It’s awkward enough when there’s a stranger behind you as you withdraw cash from an ATM without that person asking for a share.
• Panhandlers cannot be under the influence of alcohol or drugs. If they’re solicited by someone who is obviously drunk or stoned, people are more likely to be intimidated – and that’s what the ordinance is trying to prevent.
• Solicitors must act alone. Being approached by two or more people could easily increase the intimidation factor. It might behoove the city to consider adding a restriction that solicitors not be accompanied by dogs, who can present their own form of intimidation.
The current proposal could use more editing. For instance, sign-holders are generally less intrusive than people who make verbal solicitations. The ordinance would prohibit people from holding signs asking for help within 10 feet of intersections, but this seems more of a cosmetic concern than an attempt to halt aggressive panhandling.
The proposal also goes too far in seeking to prohibit panhandlers from making false claims or spending donations on something other than the need cited during the solicitation. These restrictions are basically unenforceable, and that weakens the overall effort.
Plack proposes to distribute brochures listing local charity and government organizations that can assist people in need. This would be an appropriate acknowledgement that another way to cut down on panhandling problems is through coordinated efforts to assist the less fortunate in our community.