Ash Wednesday protest: Repeal Worcester’s anti-panhandling ordinance

On Ash Wednesday, February 13, from 1-2 pm, the Saints Francis & Thérèse Catholic Worker community will sponsor a protest at Lincoln Square in Worcester calling for the repeal of anti-panhandling regulations passed last week. Signs will be held and the attached leaflet will be distributed.

Robert Peters, a long-time practitioner of Buddhist mediation, will wear a monk’s attire and hold a beggar’s bowl.

Scott Schaeffer-Duffy, a one-time novice with the Capuchin-Franciscans, will wear a Franciscan habit and also carry a beggar’s bowl.

Robert will be on the sidewalk, while Scott will defy the anti-panhandling ordinance by begging on the median strip. Both of them hope to highlight the sacred place begging and giving to beggars has in all the world’s major religions.

The members of the Catholic Worker community have sent the attached letter to Worcester’s police chief, mayor, and all the city councilors describing their reasons for holding this protest. Any funds collected will be given directly to those who who continue to feel the need to appeal for help on the streets of Worcester. For more information, call Claire Schaeffer-Duffy 508 753-3588.
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Worcester City Council: yes on anti-panhandling plan #3

Last time they voted to “advertise” the anti-soliciting ordinances. This week was the final step of the process. Economou, Eddy, Germain, Lukes, Palmieri, Rushton, Russell, Toomey, and Petty voted yes. O’Brien and Rivera voted no.

The City Manager reiterated his confidence that the city’s lawyers did a good job drafting this and the city won’t lose a lawsuit over it. He also said that outreach workers have talked to frequent solicitors and they know about the ordinances and penalties.

The Council asked for a report in 30 days about how enforcement is going.

The Telegram & Gazette, in an article today, outlined the time-and-place restrictions in this plan, those being the parts that have generated the most controversy yet have not been discussed in public by the Council or mentioned (until today) in traditional media. Since they Council didn’t debate the specifics of the plan, just asked some questions about implementation and reporting, they didn’t use this final opportunity to answer the concerns. Maybe I’m naive, but this still amazes me.

Update: Here’s a photo of a handout on the ordinance. It doesn’t mention the many time and place restrictions. Odd.

Worcester City Council approves anti-panhandling plan #3

Last night the Worcester City Council voted in favor of its third anti-panhandling plan in recent years. Councilors O’Brien and Rivera voted no; Councilor Germain was absent.

This plan has three parts: discouraging people from running into traffic, discouraging “aggressive” behavior while begging, and banning asking for help in various times and places.

The time-and-place restrictions are the ones that have had me, the ACLU, and other residents up in arms over this plan. Once again, the City Councilors completely ignored the time-and-place restrictions in their discussions. I even began the public comment section by giving chapter-and-verse on these sections, and directly asking them to be addressed, but to no avail. This disregard was even more amazing after Konnie Lukes berated the audience for not reading the ordinances, and then Rick Rushton explained the ordinances completely backwards, saying soliciting on sidewalks would not be affected, whereas an entire third of this plan, conceptually, is about restricting times and places of soliciting on sidewalks. I am a little discouraged but mostly amazed.

Worcester Magazine has notes.

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

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.
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Worcester’s third anti-panhandling plan: to committee

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.

Worcester panhandling: outreach program begins

According to the Telegram & Gazette, today a full-time outreach worker will begin talking to Worcester’s panhandlers, as part of the city’s plan to reduce their numbers.

The only other part of this plan is “public education.” I haven’t noticed an ad campaign yet.

The manager said the outreach worker will document the needs of each person encountered and the types of intervention employed, and will have to give a report to the city’s transitional housing manager.

Worcester panhandling report/plan, 2012

The City Manager’s response to the City Council’s request that something be done about panhandling is now online. The agenda item is: “Transmitting Informational Communication Relative to a Reponse to Reduce the Incidence of Panhandling in the City”. PDF link

There’s 57 pages of stuff here. Glancing through the 4-page letter from the City Manager that opens the document, we see these highlights:

  • Social Service/Treatment Response: A social worker from SMOC will do outreach to panhandlers, connecting them with services, providing general reports on panhandling to the city, and working with police if the occasion arises. There will be a phone number people can call to complain about panhandling, and these reports will make it to the social worker. I don’t think this was part of the previous anti-panhandling campaign. (PDF of previous plan)
  • Enforcement: “Peaceful panhandling is constitutionally protected speech.” From Jan 2011-Jan 2012 the WPD estimate they received 181 reports of non-peaceful panhandling, which led to 5 arrests.
  • Public Education: AKA, telling people not to give to panhandlers. This was pretty much the only part of the previous anti-panhandling campaign that was implemented, and was an embarrassment and a failure. The City Manager notes that “Several social agencies, including the United Way” have agreed to work with the city on a public education campaign.

In a nutshell: We’re hiring a social worker to deal with the problem.

Many more details, especially as regards the media campaign, are yet to come.

Photo: The showcase billboard from Worcester’s 2005 anti-panhandling campaign, defaced.

All-night Main South prayer vigil, Worcester

Prayer vigil for Main South

There’s a 12-hour prayer vigil for Main South at King & Main in Worcester tonight, organized by The Woo.

I stopped by tonight and joined about 15 others in a little silent prayer, a little spoken prayer, a lot of conversation, and the occasional psalm. As a Catholic, when I think “12-hour prayer vigil” I think of rosaries, litanies, and the Divine Office. This group is coming from a different place, and it’s interesting watching them figure out how they want to use this time. I’ll be back for more in the morning.

Latest Worcester military recruiting center graffito

"Closed"The sign in front of the military recruiting center on Park Avenue has been scrawled out with spray paint, and the word “CLOSED” added below. (There’s also a bit of red paint splattered on it, though most of this is gone.)

I haven’t been around Worcester much this year, but people who have tell me the sign has been replaced once, and vandalized “six or seven times”, in recent months.