While Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker’s long wrought panhandling ordinance has drawn plenty of criticism from low-income and civil liberties advocates, the discussion at last night’s work session dwelled on the likelihood that the new ordinance, if adopted, would do little more to stop aggressive panhandling than existing laws can, and would likely leave voters upset that more couldn’t be done.
“I don’t think I had any panhandlers vote for me,” said Councilman JT Martin, who was concerned about Salt Lake City Police Department statistics showing 110 complaints from citizen this year about panhandlers. “At the end of the day, I agree with the Chief that it’s all about education. But until then, our constituents expect us to do something to not make this number keep going up.”
Still stakeholders in the proposition reminded the council that constitutionally they could not ban panhandling due to 1st Amendment reasons. “We can’t ban it all together,” said attorney for Salt Lake City, Boyd Ferguson, who has been working on the legal aspects of the ordinance. “It is speech on a public forum, we can only regulate the time, manner and form that it’s done.”
Working within these confines the ordinance would set distance restrictions from panhandling, or soliciting, within ten feet of sidewalk cafes, transit stops and ATMs. The ordinance would also prohibit soliciting at night or to a “captive audience” such as an individual stuck at a traffic light for example.
Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank offered several words of caution to the council especially on the efficacy of distance prohibitions. “We can say ‘this line is bad, but this line is OK,’ so in effect we arbitrarily push people into a different direction. That’s one of the concerns I have,” Burbank said. Policy analyst Russell Weeks made the point to the council that nationally Salt Lake City was not out of place in seeking ordinances to address aggressive panhandling, citing a joint survey done by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty and the National Coalition on Homelessness that showed 49 percent of cities surveyed had laws on the books to address such issues. As Burbank pointed out, however, Salt Lake City is already one of those cities, that has laws to regulate threatening behavior that would be considered “aggressive panhandling” already on the books.
Councilman Luke Garrott, whose District 4 includes the downtown commercial areas where panhandlers most often congregate, was the only council member to ask if there was crime data to show that the targeted populations were involved in an increase in crime to correspond with the increase in citizen complaints over panhandling. Burbank assured the council the data could be provided at a later meeting.
Garrott also questioned whether the public’s mandate for action on panhandling might pressure law enforcement to do more about panhandlers at the expense of other police work. “You asked the question of ‘can this be enforced?’” Garrott said of a question raised by Burbank. “I think with the raised expectations people are going to be asking you to enforce it. But is that going to get in the way of other things?” Burbank’s response was a simple yes, though he couldn’t predict what kind of pressure there would be from the public.
“If our focus becomes [panhandling] such that we spend a great deal of time doing that, then that would mean losing somewhere else,” Burbank said. “There’s no question about it--so it is a balancing act.” Garrott also questioned whether the “stick” aspect of the ordinance would be the best tool for educating panhandlers about soliciting money on public property.
Becker’s Chief of Staff David Everitt however remained confident that the ordinance could accomplish enforcement and education at the same time.
“It will never be perfect,” Everitt told the council at the beginning of the hearing. “[But] as with all ordinances, you and the Mayor and the administration can take the time to adjust the ordinances as they are shown to need it. “It’s not a fix to the situation outright,” Everitt said, adding that the ordinance would ideally serve to give citizens and business owners legal legitimacy to educate panhandlers about boundaries. He also added that the ordinance had power, where education fails. “If it has to be, it can be a tool of enforcement.”
Ralph Vix, a former carnival worker and recently homeless Salt Lake City resident, worries that police already are cracking down on the city’s low-income population. During the formal meeting, the soft spoken Vix told the council he had witnessed police citing homeless people for loitering just for stopping momentarily on public sidewalks. He worries that what city administrators optimistically call a “tool” for education could just be used to unconstitutionally bully the homeless who have had to resort to panhandling to survive.
“We have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” Vix says. “That covers panhandling--because panhandling is a right to life.”
Homeless for two months now, Vix had been on the road for what he was told would be a nine month job. Four months later he was abruptly let go. Returning to Salt Lake City, Vix lost his apartment and had to move into the Road Home’s men’s shelter. “I love Salt Lake City. This is home,” Vix says. “I just need to get a job and get an apartment and get back on my feet.”
The council moved to hold a public hearing on the proposal at a future date.