This month, the City Council voted 9-3 to approve a new ordinance aimed at limiting what the council deems “aggressive” panhandling. According to the new ordinance, aggressive panhandling means asking more than once for money, in groups of two or more people, outside liquor stores or gas stations, or a half hour before dusk or after dawn.
This looks to us the same way it would look if a doctor attempted only to treat a patient’s symptoms without actually diagnosing the illness. The problem is not with panhandling, but with the causes that drive people to panhandle – homelessness, poverty and substance abuse. Certainly there are some who suffer from none of these conditions and who merely prey on the goodwill of their fellow citizens, but we believe that those people are in the minority. A survey by the Hennepin County Office to End Homelessness found that the amount of time panhandlers spend on the street asking for money has a direct correlation with the time they spend without permanent housing, according to a recent report by Downtown Journal.
In addition, this measure seems incredibly difficult to enforce. If people feel they are being aggressively panhandled, are they to call 911? This is much too cavalier an approach to what should be an emergency service only, and the city’s police officers have enough to worry about without investigating every time a person is asked near a gas station for spare change.
This is also a legitimate First Amendment issue. Council Member Cam Gordon, who represents the University area and voted against the ordinance, raised this point and we agree. Panhandlers have just as much a right to ask for money as the religious proselytizers that occasionally visit Northrop Mall have to voice their views. Can we honestly say that being asked for change is more bothersome and more detrimental to our quality of life than is any other speech we might prefer not to hear? The First Amendment doesn’t entitle panhandlers to verbally attack people, but we feel that this measure is really about curbing the behavior in general and removing it from view. Urban poverty will not go away until the roots are addressed, and this knee-jerk “get tough” approach won’t help.