Worcester’s third anti-panhandling plan: Joint Committee votes yes

posted by Mike on January 5th, 2013

This week the Worcester City Council Joint Public Health and Human Services and Municipal Operations Committee met to discuss Worcester’s third proposed anti-panhandling plan. These measures would affect men who stand on street corners holding signs, people asking for a quarter on the street, and kids and non-profits soliciting donations at intersections.

There are three kinds of restrictions in the proposed set of ordinances.

  1. The first try to keep people from wandering on traffic islands and in the road.
  2. The second try to keep people from being persistent or scary in their soliciting.
  3. The third name times and places in which soliciting is banned. These would include after dusk, from people walking, near ATMs, near entrances to buildings, near bus stops, near restaurants with outdoor seating, and any “place of public assembly.”

At the Joint Committee meeting, various representatives of businesses and business groups spoke in favor of some action on panhandling, though not so much the specific proposals. Other people spoke against the proposals, specifically the third kind of time-and-place restrictions, as being objectionable on civil liberties or ethical grounds, or as making Worcester a slightly-less-human city.

The Councilors, Deputy City Manager, and City Solicitor then spoke thoughtfully and compassionately about the first 2 kinds of restrictions and didn’t mention the third at all, before voting (with one dissent) to send these proposals to the full City Council for a vote. (That vote could happen as early as the January 15 City Council meeting.)

When I confronted one Councilor about this after the meeting, the Councilor at first denied that the third kind of restriction was in the proposals at all, then expressed surprise upon seeing that it was.

I’ve emailed the other Joint Committee members about this, on the chance that they’d also voted on a proposal they hadn’t read, but there’s been no comment from them.

I hope that the Councilors and Solicitor will discuss the time-and-place restrictions when this comes before the full Council, because some of the phrases in there sound kinda extreme to a layman (“all . . . places of public assembly”) but might have a less-extreme legal meaning.

Here’s the text of my remarks to the Council, followed by some Twitter notes from the meeting. If you’d like to see a less-snarky collection of notes, Worcester Magazine also live-blogged it.

I appreciate your interest in traffic safety and encouraging politeness, but I’m concerned that this ordinance tries to keep people from asking for help in any public place where other people might actually be. I hope you’ll oppose such restrictions.

The ability to ask for help, and to respond one way or another, is key to a healthy society, and to those of us trying to be Christians, key to God’s plan for our lives.

The downsides to these proposals, in terms of civil liberties and basic social relationships, are clear.

What are the potential upsides? At first glance, there are none. They don’t do anything about poverty or addiction. Maybe a couple guys will stop panhandling. Most of them will not. Maybe people who ask for help once in a great while will be discouraged by these laws; people who do it every day won’t be. As several Councilors have pointed out, a lot of this seems to duplicate existing ordinances.

Now no City Councilor has explained at a public meeting, based on facts and commonsense arguments, how these ordinances would end the nusance of scruffy men on street corners. And I hope some of you will do that tonight.

But really, I’d like you to consider that every human interaction has potential for abuse, and there are plenty of laws written against those abuses. Please don’t overreact to this situation by restricting our freedom to reach out and connect.

(The Councilors did spend some time talking about whether this would deal with “the nusance of scruffy men on street corners,” and went to great pains to make clear that it would not. Hence the comments from some locals that “their attitude was, this won’t really change anything, but then it can’t be all that bad either, so why not vote for it, right?”)

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  • At Worcester City Council panhandling mtg. Manager has turned out local biz assoc heads to support the restrictions.
  • First public cmt: Richard Kerver. Talking about bikes. No connection to panhandling.

  • Second cmt: N. Worc Biz Assoc. Panhandlers make us look bad.

  • Public cmt: Sarah Loy. No new laws. Leave panhandlers alone.

  • Public cmt: Mike Benedetti. Lincolnesque plea to stop hunting fruitflies with shotguns.

  • Public cmt: Chris Robarge of ACLU. Stop hating on the Constitution. Nice city you got there, shame if it got sued.

  • Public cmt: Bloggin’ Bill Randell. Panhandlers and people asking for donations hurt your business.

  • Public cmt: Gadflin’ Jo Hart. We need more traffic enforcement. Stop teaching schoolkids to beg, you lousy New Englanders.

  • Chris Horton, anti-forclosure/unemployment. Panhandlers tell us a story about an ongoing crisis.

  • David Bentley: High school beggars worse-behaved than habitual signers.

  • Kevin Ksen: This stuff will impact people soliciting for regular biz. This cd make tag days unregulated.

  • David Coyne: wearing nice sweater. Most religions highlight right to beg and obligation to respond.

  • Worc Chamber of Commerce. Don’t push panhandlers nearer to businesses and homes. Wants no-begging zones larger/numerous.

  • Living Earth: Keep these people out of our lot/building. (Shopped hnds times, nvr seen this!)

  • Konnie: Does calling the cops solve this problem? Living Earth: yes.

  • Nicole Apostola: City’s #s say many panhandlers have mental illness/addiction. Will a couple new regs deter them?

  • Nicole: City has all sorts of stuff in its anti-homelessness plan. Want to implement some of that finally?

  • Deb Ekstrom/CHL: I am a humanist, agree with Jewish Coyne/Xian Benedetti that compassion key.

  • Joe Geneva: Recently was at risk of homelessness for 1st time. Options lmt/confusing.

  • Konnie: Are you OK? Joe: I’m good.

  • Ronnie: I saw a guy busking. This must stop. I’ve been homeless 11 yrs, HOAP never helped me.

  • Konnie chairing. Public comment done. Can city’s lawyer address civil liberties angle?

  • Bill Eddy: I want to interrupt you for no reason.

  • Nicole Apostola ‏@niccommawoo: What I’m hearing is that we need an aggressive jaywalking ordinance.

  • City Solicitor Moore: We can regulate solicitation vs communication.

  • Moore: since traffic ordinances require police for intervention, lot of flexibility in enforcement there

  • Moore: All solicitors are equal here.

  • Deputy City Manager: our social worker program was successful. Let’s continue that model. These ordinances are part of larger picture.

  • Nb. The collection of ordinances at hand are a real dog’s breakfast. Amazed they are considered part of any “picture.”

  • Economou: why do we still have panhandlers? DCM: I dunno. Addiction.

  • Germain: Restates above questions/answers.

  • Germain: everyone thinks we’re banning panhandling. This won’t make it disappear.

  • Moore: “it doesn’t hurt” if you have redundant laws.

  • Eddy: People have a right to panhandle. People have responsibility to poor. This stuff here is public safety.

  • Eddy: maybe Little Leaguers need to beg on store property.

  • Rivera: I’m not pro/anti panhandling, I’m frustrated we’re hopping between issues

  • No Councilor has explained how these ordinances would solve problem of aggressive panhandling

  • No Councilor has claimed any of this will reduce visibility of panhandling.

  • No councilors have addressed the parts that ban place of begging rather than behavior

  • Rivera: what we are doing makes as much sense as me thinking my pen is a car.

  • Konnie downplays impact of these ordinances.

  • Nicole Apostola ‏@niccommawoo: Lukes also says that there are larger issues “beyond the scope of this conversation” but doesn’t feel like addressing the real issues.

  • Konnie joins those councilors asking audience to show them understanding/compassion.

  • Konnie: let’s ask the Council to pass this.

  • Joint Committee votes for City Council to consider ords, only Rivera dissenting. Not this week tho.

  • Just asked a Councilor, “what about the part that establishes 100s of no-panhandling zones you didn’t discuss?” “The what? Oh.”

  • SEKUL (É™, BIZARRO) ‏@BIZARROLUKES: THERE AM LARGER ISSUES BEYOND THE SCOPE OF THIS CONVERSATION ABOUT PANHANDLING. BUT @BIZARROLUKES AM ONLY PAWN… IN GAME OF LIFE.

  • Nicole Apostola ‏@niccommawoo: #WORCPOLIPROBLEMS Deciding which earth-shattering problem you’ll solve this year: livery, panhandling, or food trucks.

  • Mike Murray ‏@michaelbrazell: Solution to Worcester’s panhandling problem is to give every panhandler a hotdog steamer. They’ll be evicted in no time #WORCPOLIPROBLEMS

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5 Comments Leave a comment.

  1. On January 5, 2013 at 09:23 elmparkblogger said:

    Ask a couple of parents how they handle it when their kids ask about whether panhandling is a viable alternative to an education, getting a job, raising a family.

    Ask how many panhandlers already have government assistance–whther it is SSDi or some other form. And how they really use the money they get.

    Ask a small business owner (if he has time to talk with you) how panhandling affects the image of the City.

    Ask a college president what prospective students say about the ragged people on the street corners.

    Ask a “homeless person” where exactly did he serve in Viet nam? Does he/she consider it an insult to falsely claim a military hardship?

    Ask a group or grade school or high school students if they would consider panhandling rather than entrepreneurship.

  2. On January 5, 2013 at 09:38 Mike said:

    Jim, what do you think Worcester should do about the concerns you list? What actions would be effective and legal?

  3. On January 5, 2013 at 10:54 Chris Horton said:

    First, Panhandler is a pejorative term. It implies scammer, professional beggar. I have not heard one “panhandler” use that term. Many refer to themselves as “signers”. I will use “sign-holder” because “signer” already claimed by users of sign language.

    Second: even the ones who take professional pride in their conduct, their relationships with motorists and the police, the way they help regulate who gets which corner when, are quick to say how much they hate having to do this. Not a formal denial. They’re speaking from their hearts. A few out of 35 I’ve talked to showed clear signs of addiction, incoherence, alcohol breath. One was known to behave aggressively and I saw an instance of that. (His spot is near Evo’s.) All of the rest were clear and lucid about why they were doing this, their stories, their feelings and experiences. Pretty much, regular folk in a bad situation.

    Third: They mostly don’t get much. There are stories of sign-holders who are making a lot of money, but their story is that they have to stand and ask for hours to get the $30 or $40 they need. One reason they give for not coming even to a meeting with food is they can’t afford to take the time away from sign-holding. One of the most experienced at a very good corner claims being able to average $8 an hour sometimes – but that’s rare. Watch them a while and see how often they collect something – usually a dollar or change. Result supports their claims of it being a hard way to get a meager living.

    Fourth: You ask them about their circumstances, Ask them how much they get a month! Many are collecting SSI or SSDI, and not receiving enough to pay the rent. Many have been waiting, some for over a year, to get on SSI. Others are unable to find work due to arrest records or age.

    Fifth: The most common reason: this is the only way they can find to get enough money to pay rent, stay off the street out of the shelters and out of a tent.

    Sixth: When I first started talking with sign-holders many talked about their good relationships with the police, how police would talk to them, even bring them sandwiches, give them guidelines on not interfering with traffic, some would make them move on. And the few who would get out of line and harass motorists, the police would come pick them up. Now the stories of police harassment have increased a lot. Donations are down, abusive comments, threats and thrown objects from passing motorists are way up.

    The infamous young woman who was pregnant, then not pregnant, accused of being a fake pregnancy, of abusing her child by panhandling, then crippled, now walking without crutches, possibly the most hated person in worcester, has how had her baby taken away by Child Services. Her husband was staying at home with the baby, because hated or not she was able to collect more money. I haven’t spoken to her since this happened.

    My suggestion:

    1. City Council commends police for keeping order with soliciters on sidewalks and traffic islands, encourages them to build relationships with signers and get tough on the ones who cause disturbances, hazards or intimidation, and pass no further law.

    2. THe City Council calls a joint meeting of the appropriate Committees to determine what has happened with promises to address availability of low income no-deposit housing and getting homeless into rooms, and report back very soon with proposals for how to move this forward.

    3. Included in the housing discusion should be the matter of shelter beds for people who can’t prove they’ve been Worcester residents for at least two years. Homeless and unemployed people move around looking for jobs. That doesn’t make them invaders. Out there in the cities of America and around the world are thousands of unemployed sons and daughters of Worcester wandering in search of finding a job, a home, a chance at a real life. How do we want them treated? Should they all come home?

    4. The City Council should call hearings, to which our State and US Reps are to be invited and encouraged to attend, concerning the delays and level of payments for SSI and SSDI claimants, and to produce recommendations for City, State and Federal actions to raise payments to a true subsistence level and help people survive the waiting period for their claims.

  4. On January 5, 2013 at 11:08 Chris Horton said:

    Final suggestion: City Council to hold hearings, with State and US legislators invted, on General Relief, cash payments to any job seeker who has exhausted or was never able to collect. Right now for childless able-bodied individuals there is no cash assistance at all once their benefits run out. I’m amazed frankly at how few sign-holders there are, given how many people I meet with no income at all. Nationally there are perhaps 40 million unemployed or underemployed. In Worcester proper there are easily 20,000 unemployed and involuntary part time workers, more likely 25,000. They are everywhere and they are invisible and increasingly desperate and hopeless. The sign-holders are the tip of a very large iceberg. The good leaders of our fair City need to be dealing with the iceberg.

    When you remove the tip of an iceberg, more often than not it will roll over to expose a new tip.

  5. On January 5, 2013 at 11:47 Victor Infante said:

    >Living Earth: Keep these people out of our lot/building. (Shopped hnds times, nvr seen this!)

    To be fair, I get hit up frequently at Living Earth, usually by the same young woman in the parking lot. Sometimes, she has a kid with her. Her plight concerns me a bit more than my discomfort.

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