Council must take several approaches to panhandling

Published 12:00 am Friday, August 13, 2004

It’s good thing that the mayor of Suffolk is taking an interest in panhandling that is happening on the city’s streets.

It’s a nuisance. Nobody likes to be accosted by panhandlers and asked for a hand out. Downtown business owners feel it hampers their economic interests because customers may not visit their store if they feel like they can’t get in and out without being accosted. And sometimes, it’s downright scary if the panhandler is a large male or otherwise aggressive in pursuit of a hand out.

Be all that as it may, courts have found that panhandling also constitutes protected speech. In the eyes of the law, it’s little different than soliciting a political donation.

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As such, if the matter comes before them, City Council members should avoid any knee-jerk reaction.

They are elected to represent not only the interests of downtown business owners, but also the poor and homeless in our city – and they do exist. They have rights just like everybody else and that needs to be taken into consideration in regard to any proposed ordinance.

None of this is to suggest that no ordinance is needed. Like all speech, panhandling needs to have limits. Just as we’ve created no-call lists so that those who so desire will not be panhandled over the telephone while at home, we can do the same thing with panhandling.

Panhandling in and of itself is not the problem. It’s aggressive panhandling that needs to be controlled. There’s nothing in the world wrong with a hungry, homeless person asking someone for food money, but when they get in your face, make physical contact, and stalk and/or attempt to bully people, that’s a different matter.

It should also be off-limits near ATM machines.

The mayor should appoint a committee comprised of representatives of Council, the business community, social services, homeless advocates and the city attorney to come up with an ordinance that protects the rights of all.

Many communities that have passed overly aggressive anti-panhandling ordinances have found themselves on the receiving end of an ACLU lawsuit. That’s something Suffolk doesn’t need.

None of us likes to be pestered, or made to feel uncomfortable, but those are often the prices we pay for living in a free society.