Cleveland Council Passes Panhandling Ordinance

by Kevin E. Cleary

      Panhandling became a divisive hot-button issue this July as Cleveland City Council held deliberations throughout the month on Mayor Campbell’s proposed Ordinance 695-05. An emergency ordinance (meaning that the archaic rules of passing an ordinance were suspended--90% of bills passed in Cleveland are “emergency.”) meant to reduce “aggressive solicitation,” i.e. aggressive panhandling passed 15-2. The bill drew the ire of social justice advocates and the praise of several downtown and Ohio City merchants. The ordinance was passed on Wednesday, July 13, and was virtually unmodified except for a one-year sunset provision added by the Council.

      The law will expire on October 15, 2006. The ordinance was passed by a vote of 15-2, with Councilmen Zachary Reed and Kevin Conwell objecting. The new law is citywide and places restrictions on when and where an individual can solicit donations. It also prohibits the manner in which an individual may ask for money, or any thing of value. Individuals can no longer solicit within 10 feet of an entrance to a building or parking lot. People will no longer be able to solicit within 15 feet of a public toilet facility, or within 20 feet of a bus stop, line of pedestrians, ATM machine, valet zone, or outdoor patio. Following an individual or acting in an aggressive manner during solicitation is also prohibited, as is asking an individual for a contribution more than once. 

      Deliberations chaired by Councilman Reed earlier in the month grew quite heated as several merchants expressed frustration and concern over the increased number of panhandlers in Cleveland. Restaurant owners were often the most vocal as many discussed their inability to stop panhandlers from soliciting money from their patrons dining in outdoor patios. As the patios are often bordered by public sidewalks, panhandlers were previously able to safely solicit money in close proximity to the diners without legally trespassing. Commander Andy Gonzales and Officer John Nichols of the 3rd District also testified in favor of the ordinance, relating both statistical data and personal experience. Commander Gonzales stated that the number of complaint calls about aggressive solicitation had risen from 261 calls in 2000 to 400 in 2004, not including direct calls to the Commander. Officer Nichols described an incident during which he was off-duty and dining in an outdoor patio with a date and was compelled to threaten violence in order to vanquish a persistent panhandler. The representatives of the police force both spoke in favor of the ordinance. According to Officer Nichols, the legislation will give officers a “comprehensive tool” to deal effectively with aggressive panhandlers, and “enhance the perception of public safety.” 

      Social justice advocates such as the NAACP, Tim Walters of the May Dugan Center, Brian Davis of NEOCH, Gary Daniels of the ACLU, Jesse Blakely of the Catholic Worker, and others brought a number of concerns to the table about the new law, including its potential unconstitutionality, the unlikelihood of collecting fines from panhandlers and the potential for this law to be used to discriminate against homeless people. Many were also concerned that panhandlers or police might not be accurately informed of the boundaries placed by this law and subsequently people might be wrongly arrested due to lack of signage demarcating acceptable boundaries. 

      Councilmen Reed held the public hearing to gather information and to garner more input from the community. Councilman Conwell was particularly concerned that the majority of panhandlers are African-American males and that the law might predominantly discriminate against them. He was also concerned that the legislation was overly broad and would do little to actually address the myriad problems associated with aggressive panhandling, and its enforcement might primarily be targeted downtown instead of outlying neighborhoods. He also questioned whether illicit drugs being sold in the community wasn’t a higher priority.

      Craig Tame of the Mayor’s Office responded that the Mayor’s office was “vehemently opposed” to discrimination in the enforcement of the new law, and would closely monitor outcomes to ensure it did not happen. He also made sure to note that the police will still have high priority issues such as domestic violence calls and combating the sale of illicit drugs. According

to Tame, “We’re not taking resources away from our war against drugs.” A complaint call about panhandling is of lower priority, and police response will generally take 45 minutes, according to Commander Gonzales’s testimony.

      Support for the legislation initially seemed to be mixed, although Councilman Michael Dolan expressed his support of the legislation by stating that his wife does not come downtown because of her fears of aggressive panhandlers. Dolan’s expressed support did not result in an affirmative vote for the law however, as he was absent from the vote. 

      Councilman Kevin Kelley expressed concerns that the legislation would also prevent the Salvation Army and local firemen from soliciting donations in restricted areas, and that the law could also be read to prohibit signature gathering for petitions. This was confirmed by Cleveland Legal Department counsel, Rick Horvath.

      Horvath of the Mayor’s Office sought to reassure those present that the law was constitutional in that it placed “reasonable time and place restrictions” but did not prohibit panhandling entirely. “[We have] not gone as far as other cities… we believe it is constitutional.”

      While there were a number of representatives from the business community and advocacy organizations, little attention was paid to the relative absence of panhandlers and homeless people in the deliberations. Only two panhandlers testified during the hearings, prompting Tim Walters to comment that more people with low-incomes might have shown up if it they were not obligated to show ID at the entrance to City Hall.

      Brian Davis, Executive Director of NEOCH also questioned the constitutionality of the panhandling ordinance and felt that the sunset provision was a pointless attempt to satisfy social justice advocates without addressing their real concerns. He expressed concern that the legislation includes no means of measuring its success and will accomplish nothing while punishing poor people. “I guess we’ll know it’s working when Dolan’s wife starts shopping downtown if we still have any businesses downtown.”

Copyright Homeless Grapevine Issue 72 August 2005 Cleveland, Ohio.