Testimony by Brian Davis
Executive Director, Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless
THE NORTHEAST OHIO COALITION FOR THE HOMELESS STRONGLY OPPOSES THE POTENTIAL LAW REGULATING PANHANDLING IN AKRON
My name is Brian Davis and I am the Executive Director of the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless. I am here to express the Coalition’s opposition to the proposed legislation restricting panhandling. While all homeless people are not panhandlers, and certainly not all panhandlers are homeless, we feel that we must speak out against this extremely offensive piece of legislation. I certainly do not like panhandling and I feel that it is a horrible undertaking for one of our citizens to have to resort to in order to survive. The labeling of panhandlers with a scarlet letter that they must wear is a disgraceful over-reaction to this problem. Since it seems as though we are now proposing legislation in an attempt improve the perception of the safe neighborhood of downtown, NEOCH has included a list of possible legislation that would have more of an impact on bringing people back downtown like banning parking meters, banning traffic jams, and banning mean people that this law.
This attempt in Akron strays far from the progressive history of this wonderful city. Panhandling is the expression of low income citizens petitioning “we the people” for help. There should be a high hurdle to overcome to regulate this speech. For example if the panhandlers were a national security threat then there would be a rational argument for silencing their speech, otherwise the first amendment rights of the individual should be respected. What is the local interest to not be able to ask people for money near a bank or the Civic or Lock 3? We have seen this trend in setting up “free speech zones” and segregating protestors miles away from our leaders, and this registration and removal of panhandlers is a similar effort to silence a segment of the population a move reminiscent of the Bush Administration, not the traditionally progressive local government of Akron.
The current Akron law is overly broad and unenforceable, but this new proposal ventures far into the territory of violating the individual rights of those in need of help. The current Akron panhandling law demands that the individual not deceive the pedestrian about their homeless status or use the money for only the advertised purpose. Do the Akron police have the time to investigate panhandler’s housing status or segregation of funds to assure the donation was used for the advertised purpose? Now to expect registration and a background check is a lot to ask for a struggling population. We all understand that panhandlers are nearly universally shunned by society, but that does not mean that we have a right to strip them of their constitutional protections.
U.S. cities have tried to outlaw panhandling and visible homelessness for decades with little success, and for centuries, emperors, dictators and Mayors have tried to get rid of panhandlers again with little success. San Francisco has tried to get a handle on this issue for 20 years, but the problem is still out of control. In our own state, Columbus, Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Dayton have all tried to reduce panhandling with various laws, but again with little success. Yes, we have seen an increase in panhandling, but that certainly has to do with the lack of well paying jobs in Northeast Ohio. I certainly understand the anger and shame that we all experience when approached by a panhandler, but that does not mean that the solution is legislation that will have little impact. The City of Akron passed a very broad law years ago, and that has not seemed to work because you are back at the table asking for more. How many pedestrians are going to take the trouble of filling out a police report and then going to court because they were asked for money in one of the prohibited zones?
To equate panhandling with a job is ludicrous. Panhandling is one of the few opportunities for a single male without children to get money, not something to look forward to after graduation. We have eliminated general assistance, made it difficult to get foodstamps, and nearly impossible for a single adult to get Medicaid, so where does the individual go for help? Akron does not even have a long term shelter for single men like the ACCESS shelter. The city relies on private church based programs to serve the housing needs of its citizens, but is not working to permanent solutions. There are many homeless people in Akron who reject these facilities and live on the streets or in abandoned properties. They rarely come in for help, and Akron does not have an outreach component of its social service network. So, how do we help these individuals but pedestrians offering alms to the poor? What do we do with the guy who needs to buy some medicine today and does not anticipate being without money for long term? Do they humiliate themselves with a panhandling license signifying that they will be asking for money for a long period of time?
There are alternatives to panhandling, but laws that make it illegal to ask for money is not the answer. Panhandlers will begin to get creative with signs and other avenues to get around this law. The proposed legislation will have very little impact on the problem, and will certainly not discourage panhandling. It will cost more time in police enforcement and will clog the courts as well as cost the City in legal fees to defend this legislation in Court.
This legislation takes away a person’s right to criticize the government and to tell their fellow citizens that the capitalist economy is not working for them. NEOCH also does not deny that many panhandlers have health issues that are not being addressed from mental illness to chemical addictions, but do we as a society put a muzzle on a segment of our population unable to find help for a health problem? NEOCH views this issue as the man standing on the street corner saying, “George Bush and my government cannot help me with a decent job and decent health care. My Mayor could not prevent my house from being foreclosed on; can you please help me with some change?” This is shortened to “Can you give me a dollar” in order to save time. Every citizen that we pass asking for money is criticizing our government for not providing a hand up when they began to fall. Do we want to silence this quiet form of political protest?
NEOCH has never supported empty legislation. We ask that City Council return this legislation to the Mayor, and ask him to demand “a little social change?” We ask that this legislation be opposed for these reasons:
It will almost certainly be challenged in court. Does the City need to spend resources on fighting over legislation that will have very little impact on the number of panhandlers?
Panhandlers are fairly intelligent, and will figure out ways around this legislation to continue to enjoy the protections of the first amendment to speak their mind. They may become street performers or will become hold signs to get around this legislation.
Do the police need more work or should they concentrate on more important activities downtown than checking for panhandling licenses?
Panhandling is free speech. There must be an overwhelming public purpose to regulate speech, not just that people feel uncomfortable. I am very uncomfortable with the Ohio Lottery, but would not expect the government to regulate based on the religious convictions of a few citizens.
After repeated arrests for panhandling, how does this individual ever get back into the mainstream? With a criminal record is very difficult to get housing and a job?
What about the people who closely adhere to the teachings of the Bible ("Jesus answered, 'If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.'"-Matthew 19:21) who want to give? Will they be barred from expressing their religious beliefs because of a law that says a person cannot ask for money in parts of the Downtown area?
Victims of solicitors or those who were asked for money in one of the many prohibited areas will still need to go to court and complete a police report. Will our busy population be interested in going to court because a down and out guy asked for a dollar within 20 feet of an ATM or a bank? Even if police witness the activity they must appear in court, and do we need police in the court room or solving or preventing crimes on the streets?
Similar legislation was tried in other cities, and has failed. Why can’t we learn from those other communities and craft legislation that will work based on compassion for human failings, competition, and innovative ideas. Do we actually believe that the “Scarlet Letter” approach to making laws will work?
There are no protections for the public to assure that police are not issuing frivolous tickets. We would want strong reporting requirements for any legislation that passes to be able to quickly access the extent to which this law is being used.
Since most of Public Square has either a driveway, crosswalk, telephone, ATM or is otherwise prohibited for panhandlers would this also restrict firefighters raising money for Jerry’s kids and the Salvation Army from asking for money during the Christmas season?
What happened to the concept that the sidewalks of Downtown are the meeting place of citizens? They will bring their problems, their grievances, and their issues to petition the government. That is the beauty of the city landscape—the interaction of the population including the panhandlers. When did we start regulating speech on the sidewalks that happen to be near a bank?
Aren’t there more important issues to work on for City Council that would have more of impact on the citizens of Akron? How about making the downtown friendlier to tourists and homeless people with a drinking fountain and bathroom? How about a jobs bill to give these guys real jobs that pay a living wage? NEOCH has proposed other legislation that would do more to bring people back downtown like banning parking meters, parking tickets, traffic jams, and mean people.
If the business community is so interested in this legislation then how about putting some pressure on them to do something about the disparities that exist in pay. How about putting a pool of money together to foster alternatives and competition to panhandling? How about requiring all local businesses to pay a Universal Living Wage that is tied to the cost of housing? Increasing the amount of money a person receives at any job is the best strategy to make panhandling unattractive. The reality is that often a person can make more money begging for money than working 8 to 10 hours in a day. Wouldn’t anyone of us rather work inside at a factory for $12 per hour than having to be on the rainy cold streets of Akron asking for money?
A few other things to keep in mind about panhandling in Akron:
Do not over dramatize the problem! A quick scan of the panhandling problem in Akron in comparison to other cities will show that we really have a minor problem. The Downtown of Akron is still one of the safer neighborhoods in the City, and so why are we demonizing these guys and presuming that they are a threat?
Do not forget the bigger problem. We cannot take our eyes off of the bigger problem, which is people sleeping outside. In many cities, panhandling seems to be an easier problem and so business groups go after the panhandlers instead of trying to solve the problems associated with homeless people sleeping outside. These guys who panhandle need living wage jobs tied to the cost of housing!!!
Competition does work. Having a strong, active and widespread street newspaper project makes it difficult for panhandlers. Employing homeless people to be bell ringers for the Salvation Army is direct competition. Even having artists that collect money for playing, singing, or doing magic will make panhandlers leave
If you can’t beat them… We have seen the success of hiring panhandlers in the Flats of Cleveland to distribute passes to the nightclubs and bars. The individual can make the money they need by being paid for every coupon that is turned in, and it is inexpensive advertising. The panhandler will not have time to ask for money if they are giving out coupons. The business strikes a deal that the distributor of passes will not ask for money. This strategy also is rough competition to other panhandlers. The Homeless Grapevine is also an effective competition to panhandling, but we have not found a progressive non-profit to host the paper.
Law Enforcement does not work. Crack downs on panhandlers do not work, and are expensive for a city. Police have much more important things to do than to chase down panhandlers. Invariably in this town this registration law will be challenged in court, and would cost the city increased legal bills. Not to mention the fact that the large number of tickets makes it more difficult to get into housing or find a real job. Panhandlers will always find a way around the rules. For example, Cincinnati made it illegal to ask for money with words, so the panhandlers and their activist friends just distributed signs that asked for donations.
Current laws need to be enforced. I heard the Mayor say that he was deceived by a panhandler as one of the reasons for this law. Your current law makes it illegal to deceive pedestrians when asking for money. Why didn’t the Mayor take this scofflaw to court? Many lawyers and activists claim that existing laws can take care of the problem. The big issue is that unless police watch the activity, they must rely on the pedestrian victim to file a complaint and follow it through the courts. This is not something that most pedestrians have the time or ability to do.
POSSIBLE ACTION STEPS FOR CITY COUNCIL
Regarding the Proposed Panhandling legislation:
Request an opinion from a neutral lawyer on the constitutionality of the legislation specifically the registration with a criminal background check before speaking, and the restrictions on where a person can ask for money.
Please focus energy on the need for jobs not empty legislation. Diversion programs for panhandlers and competition for panhandlers are the only activities that will work.
Ask the police and Municipal Court Administrator if this will take precious resources away from real law enforcement while following up on panhandling complaints.
Bring representatives from other cities to talk about the impact of similar legislation on the City of Cincinnati and Dayton—not just City officials but community groups that exist in the Downtown.