Last night, the Worcester City Council considered a third anti-panhandling plan. The first plan, from April 2005, had lots of ideas, but the only one that was implemented was a publicity campaign against giving to people on the street. After a year of complaints from civic activists and religious leaders, and a year of anti-panhandling signs being vandalized, the City stopped this campaign. As the City Manager recently wrote, “Engagement is a substantially better investment as it proves to be more successful than public education through expensive billboards which often have the appearance of targeting and marginalizing the poor and vulnerable.”
In July of 2012, the City took another shot at discouraging panhandlers by hiring a social worker to talk with them. This seems to have helped a couple of people, but the City Council doesn’t think it’s solved the panhandling problem, so plan #3 was proposed at last night’s Council meeting (after several weeks of delay).
Plan #3 attempts to ban “aggressive panhandling,” which it defines as not only begging in a rude or hostile way but asking for help in most any place where people might be walking, including near bus stops and any “place of public assembly.” In a letter to the Council, the City’s lawyer notes that kids asking motorists for money for little league or a school trip would have to be included in the ban along with everyone else. Many of the aspects of “aggressive panhandling” would seem to be covered by existing laws, and City Councilor O’Brien asked the City to determine whether much of this ordinance was just re-banning a bunch of stuff.
I had high hopes for Plan #2, the social worker—I can’t see how Plan #3 would be anything other than political theater, pretending that panhandling is a serious problem and then pretending that the City Council is taking it seriously. Either the ban is going to get the City sued on First Amendment grounds, or else things will play out like they did in Springfield, after an aggressive panhandling ban there, with a rash of arrests but no decline in the number of people begging on corners.
The Telegram’s headline from last night’s City Council meeting was “Council balks on panhandling ban.” A number of Council-watchers, including at least one former Councilor, predicted in the days leading up to the meeting that the Council would vote in favor of Plan #3, no problem. Instead, the Council voted to send it to committee, for further discussion and public input. Anybody who called a City Councilor or shared your distaste for this plan in a public forum, you probably muted their enthusiasm for the ban as-written. The next step: convince the Council that this ban is not an appropriate response to the problem and that a third failure is going to make Worcester look that much worse.