Council regulates panhandling

Published 10:29 pm Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Panhandling within 15 feet of most major city roads is now against city code following a vote by Suffolk City Council on Wednesday.

The issue was brought up two weeks ago, when two citizens spoke at the City Council meeting and asked for a solution to the issue.

This week’s meeting brought out more speakers. Two citizens spoke about the need for compassion.

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Christine French called the ordinance and others like it “homeless hate laws.” She referenced the city’s website, which touts Suffolk’s “Southern hospitality,” and the prayer at the beginning of the meeting.

“What are we doing that is hospitable or Christ-like to those who are at their lowest?” she asked. “It seems to me to be based more on aesthetic concerns. I can assure you, jail will not scare someone trying to feed themselves.”

Carrie Rae Wiser said she does not think the ordinance is a solution.

“Criminalizing what they’re doing is very well going to lead to a more desperate existence,” she said during the late comment period, after the ordinance had been passed.

Two others spoke in favor of the ordinance.

“They impede traffic,” Courtney Wolfe said. “This is a public safety issue. They are preying on the goodness of your citizens and shoppers.”

Matthew Sutton said he believes the dedication and creativity of the panhandlers would make them a welcome part of the workforce.

Maj. Steve Patterson of the Suffolk Police Department said the department has received 102 calls in the past 15 months reporting panhandlers. Most came from Harbour View and the commercial areas of North Main Street and Holland Road, he said.

Patterson said dropping violation of the ordinance from Class 2 to Class 3 ensures nobody will face jail time as a result of the ordinance. It is punishable by a fine of up to $500.

Councilman Mike Duman said he preferred to table the ordinance to get more information. He was against regulating just panhandling rather than all activity by the roadside, he said, and also objected to the list of specific roads where panhandling is prohibited.

But his motion to table the ordinance died for lack of a second. Other City Council members said they were concerned about public safety and wanted to pass the measure.

“This is about the safety of the pedestrian and the motorist,” Councilman Roger Fawcett said. “I think it’s paramount we look at this as a safety issue.”

He added later that representatives from his company, a lawn care service, had tried to hand out cards to the panhandlers to encourage them to seek a job with his company. He said some of the panhandlers did not want to take the card.

“I’m getting blowback,” he said. “There is people out there that have tried to help.”

The motion passed by a vote of 7-1, with Duman as the opposing vote.