I CONDUCTED a one-man, unscientific survey last weekend, taking a couple of hours to wander around downtown and Federal Hill to see how often -- and how aggressively -- people approached me to ask for money.
My survey was prompted by a recent meeting on a City Council bill that would prohibit panhandlers from directly asking for money from dusk to dawn, restricting them to holding a sign or a cup.
The bill -- which would amend a 7-year-old law on aggressive panhandling and provide fines of up to $100 and jail terms of up to 30 days for first offenses -- is being pushed by the Downtown Partnership and supported by other business groups, who contend that it is necessary to protect customers and to encourage investment.
The partnership said its survey found that "60 percent of downtown tenants and property owners ranked panhandling as one of the most critical issues facing Baltimore." It also said the proposed ordinance's intent is to "place limits upon the methods by which donations are sought after dark, when approaching someone for money is itself an inherently threatening and coercive act."
The bill is being opposed by advocates for the poor and homeless, who claim it needlessly criminalizes actions that are better met through expanded social services.
Councilman Robert W. Curran, chairman of the council committee considering the legislation, brought representatives of the two sides together last month to begin an informal dialogue in an attempt to resolve differences before a formal hearing. If the bill were to come to the council floor today, Curran said, it would be an "acrimonious vote," with members split on its merits.
Before worrying about the virtues of the legislation, I wondered about the need. In two hours of wandering, I was asked for money a handful of times -- three downtown and two in Federal Hill.
Whether that's a minor annoyance or a major intrusion is, I suppose, a matter of perspective. Even allowing for the fact that it was a holiday weekend, when visitors and maybe some panhandlers were at the beach, that's hardly a gantlet of beggars.
The most assertive was a middle-aged man in red shorts and a matching baseball cap who hurried up to me on Light Street near Lombard. He held his palms out and said he didn't want to cause trouble, but his car had a flat and he needed money to have it fixed. It was an encounter that bolstered one contention of the Downtown Partnership -- that many of those pleading for money are hustlers, not homeless people -- but when I shook my head, he went away.
A little girl sat down next to me on a bench across Pratt Street outside the Gallery at Harborplace, even before her mother came up and implored me for money for car fare to East Baltimore.
Three men -- one downtown, two in Federal Hill -- asked for money as I passed by in voices that were barely audible, as others might say "Nice night."
The most threatening figure I encountered was a middle-aged man at Charles and Hamilton streets. He was ranting incoherently but as far as I could tell wasn't asking for anything -- and thus wouldn't be covered by the proposed ordinance.
I also encountered a man sleeping on a bench at the Inner Harbor and another pushing a shopping cart of belongings in Mount Vernon -- sights not as appealing to visitors as, say, the fish sculptures that dot downtown, but again ones that aren't addressed by the legislation.
Jeff Singer, president of Health Care for the Homeless, isn't convinced panhandling is as big a problem as businesses make it out to be, but said: "If it's perceived as a problem, we're all for addressing it. What stops people begging is having better services."
In a letter sent after the work session to Michele Whelley, president of the Downtown Partnership, Singer and three other advocates for the poor and the homeless urged withdrawal of the panhandling bill; passage of a pending O'Malley administration bill that would set up a Commission on Homeless; and expanded outreach and shelter capacities.
Whelley responded in a letter that she was all for greater services for the homeless, but said legislation was needed to deal with the separate, but related, issue of panhandling. She estimated in an interview this week that "200 fairly regular" homeless people populate a 106-block downtown area, some of whom spend time in shelters and some who don't.
"I'm not trying to make it a bigger problem than it is," Whelley said. "Part of it may be perception. Part of it is the feeling that there are no controls out there."
If anything, she said, the bill should be expanded to cover such activities as sleeping on sidewalks, similar to a Philadelphia law. "The goal is quality of life," she said.
Helping America's Homeless, a book published recently by the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan Washington think tank, provides some useful perspective.
The book's analysis of a recent survey of homeless assistance providers and their clients said 8 percent of the homeless panhandled for money. But nearly 40 percent were robbed, more than 20 percent were assaulted and 7 percent were sexually abused or raped.
In other words, the people living on the streets need as much, if not more, protection than those walking on them.