City Council considers limits on panhandlers

Plan would impose dusk-to-dawn curfew

smoke ban hearing sought

November 18, 2003|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

Don't beg after dark. Don't sleep on sidewalks. Don't smoke in bars.

Those possible restrictions are under consideration by the Baltimore City Council -- with legislation for all but the smoking ban introduced at its meeting last night, and the latter to be studied.

The Downtown Partnership business advocacy organization proposed a pair of laws that would impose a civil fine for anyone who panhandles at night, lies on a sidewalk or sits on a public walkway for more than an hour.

Meanwhile, Councilwoman Helen L. Holton introduced a resolution asking for a hearing on the potential impact of a smoking ban in city bars and restaurants. Montgomery County and New York City have such laws, and Holton said she wants to study whether a similar ban would hurt business.

"I'm a reformed smoker, so I know both sides of this debate," Holton said. "My concern is that we need to know what it would mean to small bars and restaurants."

Several restaurant owners interviewed by The Sun yesterday said they strongly oppose such a ban, arguing that they provide nonsmoking sections.

"People will just go out to the suburbs to eat, or they'll stay at home and have a cigarette and beer, and we'll lose their business," said Lily Athari, manager of Louisiana Restaurant at 1708 Aliceanna St.

The legislation prohibiting panhandling from dusk until dawn would allow exceptions for street musicians and people who ask for money by holding up signs -- but who don't speak to ask passers-by, said Tom Yeager, a vice president of the Downtown Partnership. It would allow for imposition of a fine for violators, although an amount has not been decided.

A separate bill, introduced by City Council President Sheila Dixon on behalf of the partnership, would allow police to write a $50 ticket to anyone who lies on a sidewalk or sits on a public walkway for more than an hour.

"This is an effort to control panhandling after dark and control sidewalk behavior that is detrimental to downtown businesses," said Michelle Whelley, president of the Downtown Partnership.

The legislation would also prohibit people from leaving belongings unattended on a sidewalk for more than 15 minutes.

The legislation would require a police officer to warn the person and to try to find out whether he or she needs help, such as drug or alcohol counseling, mental health treatment or a shelter before writing a ticket for a sidewalk violation.

An officer who thinks the person needs assistance would contact outreach workers from the Downtown Partnership, who would evaluate the person and would try to transport him or her to a shelter or service agency.

If a person refused help, the officer could write a $50 ticket. And if the person failed to pay, a judge could require him or her to perform community service, such as cleaning up streets, Yeager said.

Dixon said the proposal has merit, in part, because it would require police officers and social workers to try to help homeless people before they ask them to move along.

"This is not arresting people," Dixon said. "This would be a pilot, two-year program, based on a similar program in Philadelphia, that would try to address panhandling in the city and maximize a holistic approach for dealing with the problem of homelessness."

Twice before, in May of this year and in June 2001, the Downtown Partnership proposed similar legislation. But those efforts failed after critics complained first that it criminalized poverty and then that it would drive panhandlers north from downtown into Charles Village and Midtown.

Partnership officials said they tried to address these concerns by making violations a civil, not a criminal, matter. And the sidewalk legislation would apply not just to downtown but also to Charles Village and Midtown.

Brendan D. Walsh, co-founder of the Viva House soup kitchen in Southwest Baltimore, said fining homeless people is nonsensical.

"What is the point of giving them a ticket if they don't have any money?" Walsh asked. "This is pure vindictiveness, and it doesn't do anything to solve the underlying question of why they are looking for food."

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