SLC, Mayor Becker still formulating panhandling plan | Buzz Blog

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

SLC, Mayor Becker still formulating panhandling plan

Posted By on February 17, 2010, 6:32 PM

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The mayor's office's proposed panhandling ordinance "was never intended to address homelessness." This isn't the first time that's been reported, but it was said again today after news this week that The Road Home has released an informal study, similar to City Weekly's months ago, that suggests that panhandlers are overwhelmingly homeless. Mayor Ralph Becker's spokeswoman, Lisa Harrison-Smith, says today they "absolutely" do believe most panhandlers are homeless, which is contrary to what I blogged earlier. 

But that being the case, I'm asking you, dear readers, whether a ordinance that restricts panhandling can ignore homelessness? Can you have a meaningful impact trying to restrict panhandling without addressing homelessness? ---

The Salt Lake City Mayor's office is dealing with exactly those questions as it attempts to reformulate an ordinance to regulate panhandling. It's constitutionally tricky, since we Americans--homeless or not--have a right to free speech, and asking for money is often just that, speech. To be fair, the mayor has said all along that passive/polite panhandling, like holding a sign, would not be restricted. 

Harrison-Smith told me today that there is no active proposal, but that the city is still working to release a second try. They're meeting quarterly with homeless advocates to figure it out. The first proposal, which you can still read (pdf), became an orphan almost over night after it was released; no one wanted to support it, and it's not supported by the mayor's office now. 

So it's back to the drawing board, or still at the drawing board, as the case may be. 

Harrison-Smith says today, similar as before, that "The panhandling ordinance was never intended to address homelessness, but ... reports of really aggressive panhandling or panhandlers holding up traffic, or people being threatened, and other things like that."

Ok, fine. But here's a question that I suggest the city be ready to answer if ever another proposal is released: Precisely what kind of behavior does the city want to restrict that is not already restricted? Standing in traffic? That's already against the law. So is threatening people. So is standing in people's way and not letting them pass by you. So is hitting or jostling people. 

No panhandling at ATM lines has been proposed. Even Tim Funk of Crossroads Urban Center thinks that's reasonable. Add train platforms and other locations--not everyone is going to like all of them--but specific time/place restrictions are going to seem reasonable to a lot of people. 

The trickiest part, as I see it, is this continual return to aggressive and persistent panhandling, which city officials mention every time I've talked to them about this. Trying to put a new panhandling ordinance between what is already illegal (like threats) and what is protected by the Constitution (most types of speech) seems really difficult. In order to stay Constitutional, the scope of the the "aggressive and persistent" part of the ordinance will have be very narrow, in which case, is there really all that much panhandling behavior that will fall under the new ordinance? 

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Jesse Fruhwirth

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