Limits urged on begging Bill would outlaw aggressive tactics by panhandlers BALTIMORE CITY

October 02, 1993|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,Staff Writer

The Schmoke administration is moving to keep Baltimore residents and visitors from being harassed by panhandlers.

Under legislation to be introduced at Monday's City Council meeting, panhandlers would be prohibited from harassing or intimidating those who they ask for money.

The bill to curb "aggressive panhandling" would prohibit panhandlers from using obscene or abusive language, blocking the path of a person or a car, or continuously asking for money after having been refused.

The proposed measure also outlaws panhandling of any sort at bus, subway or light rail stops or in the vehicles themselves, and bans asking for money in exchange for washing car windows -- the activities of the so-called "squeegee kids."

The bill does not place an outright ban on panhandling, which federal courts have said is a form of free speech.

The proposed ordinance is similar to one passed in May in Washington, where 70 panhandlers were arrested in the first six weeks after the law went into effect.

"Although we will continue to be sensitive to the needs of people who are truly in need and to those who, through no fault of their own may be homeless or hungry, we are going to do all that we can to protect the right of our citizens to move unmolested through the city," Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said in a statement yesterday announcing the legislation.

The bill provides for fines of up to $100 and jail terms of up to 30 days for first offenses. But Clinton R. Coleman, a spokesman for the mayor, said the penalties were the "very last option."

The bill was designed to give police "the power to move individuals along who are deemed to be aggressively panhandling," he said.

Business groups applauded the bill, which they said was needed because customers are being scared away by the hostile and aggressive actions of some panhandlers.

But the American Civil Liberties Union and advocates for the homeless said the legislation was unnecessary and possibly unconstitutional, and argued that it addressed a symptom but ++ not a cause of panhandling.

The legislation follows the unsolved July 25 slaying of a panhandler who was stabbed to death downtown after apparently making a rude comment to a man who refused to give him money.

It also comes just six weeks after the filing of a lawsuit in federal court accusing police and the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, a business organization, of trying to drive homeless people away from the city's tourist attractions.

Laurie Schwartz, president of the business group, which helped draft the legislation, denied the bill was a response to the lawsuit, saying, "It had been talked about before that."

"We have heard increasing concerns over the fact that panhandling has become very aggressive. Because of that, people are starting to fear for their safety," she said.

Sonny Morstein, a jewelry store owner who heads the South Baltimore/Federal Hill Business Association, said customers throughout the city are increasingly complaining that they are afraid to shop because of the actions of people begging for money.

"Customers have choices. If they feel unsafe, they're not going to return," he said.

But Susan Goering, legal director of the ACLU of Maryland, said the proposed ordinance may be constitutionally "problematic" because it singles out a particular group of people.

J. Peter Sabonis, legal director of the Homeless Persons Representation Project, said the bill was not needed because state statutes already prohibit the blocking of people on streets or using obscene language in public.

RTC "Panhandling is bothersome, there's no question about it," Mr. -- Sabonis said. "What bothers me is if this bill is being introduced because there's an increase in panhandling, we need to ask, 'Why is there an increase?' The only thing we can really point to is significant cuts in public assistance."

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