Other options discussed for panhandling

Businesses, activists say education better strategy than bill

Council session today

Homeless advocates say ordinance would punish less fortunate

March 01, 2000|By Amy Oakes | Amy Oakes,SUN STAFF

A proposed ordinance designed to stop aggressive panhandlers along Inner West Street has rallied business owners and homeless advocates to come up with an alternative solution.

Jim Martin, a West Street business owner, and Larry Griffin, president of We Care and Friends, an organization that helps the homeless and substance abusers, are producing brochures and signs to help educate people on how to deal with panhandlers as the Annapolis city council continues to discuss the ordinance.

"This is a learning experience for the town," Martin said at the council's public hearing session Monday. "We have a problem."

In the past year, residents and business owners have complained to the city and police that panhandlers had become too confrontational and were frightening customers and employees. In response, Alderman Louise Hammond introduced legislation Jan. 10 that would prohibit the "coercion and intimidation of people while they are walking or driving within a public right-of-way."

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland has opposed the bill, saying it would target disadvantaged residents who request money or goods. The city's Human Relations Commission held its first public hearing in at least two years to gauge public opinion on the bill.

`Not the right response'

Nine people spoke about the ordinance at the council's session Monday. In most cases, people were against the ordinance but did acknowledge that panhandling has become a problem in Annapolis. Representatives from Annapolis Area Ministries suggested that an increased police presence would help keep panhandlers in line.

"This [the ordinance] is not the right response," said Steve Raabe, a member of the Annapolis Area Ministries.

Hammond said she is willing to work with residents and business owners to improve the ordinance. The council will discuss the ordinance at its work session at 6: 30 p.m. today.

"I thought it was a very productive discussion," she said after the hearing Monday.

Hammond explained before the comment period that the ordinance was drafted in response to concerns from residents and business owners in her district and that it was not against panhandling. She explained that it would give police a way to deal with aggressive people asking for goods or money with the intent to coerce or frighten. It would make such behavior a municipal infraction that would carry a maximum $400 fine.

"This just wasn't thrown together," Hammond told the crowd. "This bill was drafted acknowledging the right to ask for money."

Griffin said about eight panhandlers routinely ask people for money in Annapolis. "I am not the police, but I do know who they are," he told the council.

Instead of a law, Griffin said, people need to be educated about how to handle those situations. Martin and Griffin are preparing a pamphlet, "The Do's and Don'ts of Handling Panhandlers," which Griffin said is intended for residents, visitors, business owners and their employees. The suggestions include taking the person asking for money for a meal and not engaging in a debate about what the person wants.

The city-appointed Human Relations Commission supports the idea of education rather than the proposed law. Richard Kommers, commission vice chairman, told the council that after the public hearing Feb. 23, the commission concluded that panhandling is a problem but that the ordinance was not the solution.

Police presence

Kommers said education and police presence would be more effective in dealing with the problem. The commission has sent a two-page report to the mayor and council.

Dwight Sullivan, staff counsel for the ACLU in Maryland, criticized the proposed law as not tailored narrowly enough and as restricting the constitutional liberties of underprivileged residents. He said it is too early to determine whether the ACLU will file suit.

"I'm hopeful we won't have to, and the city will realize it's unnecessary and unwise," he said.

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