Businesses to push for law to curb begging

Legislation would apply to aggressive panhandlers

January 22, 2004|By Laurie Willis | Laurie Willis,SUN STAFF

If downtown business owners get their way, soon there will be a lot less panhandling at night on city streets.

Today, members of the city's Planning Commission will hear proponents argue for legislation making it illegal to aggressively beg for money at night. The discussion will also center on programs and services needed to assist the city's growing homeless population.

The Baltimore Safe Streets Coalition -- an organization of downtown business owners, retailers, health care advocates, property owners and individuals -- is strongly pushing for the two-pronged approach, which they say is necessary to make tourists and residents feel safer when they are downtown at night and to aid homeless people.

The legislation could be voted on as early as March by the City Council, said Mike Evitts, spokesman for the Downtown Partnership, which is leading the legislative effort.

Tom Yeager, executive vice president of the Downtown Partnership's Clean & Safe Programs, said the proposed legislation would address panhandling from "dusk to dawn." It would not prohibit people from passively begging -- holding a sign or a cup without demanding money.

Another part of the legislation, patterned after Philadelphia's sidewalk ordinance, would forbid people from lying on the street, or sitting on a park bench for more than one or two hours. It would also prohibit them from leaving belongings unattended for more than 15 minutes, he said. This section would apply only to downtown and midtown areas.

"Both are civil offenses," Yeager said. "There's no criminal component, so you can't go to jail for it.

"This legislation gives police the authority to approach them, get them to move along, offer them services if they are in need of services," Yeager said. "If the person doesn't move along or go get services, then before a police officer can take any course of action, an outreach team must come to the area ... to get them the services they need."

Melvin Edwards, a city housing spokesman, said there are an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 homeless people on Baltimore's streets on any given night. He said the city's Office of Homeless Services supports the proposed legislation.

But not everyone agrees with the recommendations.

"We feel that it represents yet another attempt to punitively legislate a false and, ultimately, ineffective solution to a very complex problem," said Kevin Lindamood, spokesman for Healthcare For The Homeless.

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