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Worcester Council Wrestles With Panhandling Ban

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

 

The City Council weighed its options on Tuesday, sending the ban on panhandling currently on the table, which would end the tag day solicitations many community organizations rely on for fundraising in Worcester, to committee for further discussion.

The ordinances regarding Pedestrian Safety in the Public Right of Way and the Prohibition of Aggressive Panhandling were tabled under privilege by District 4 City Councilor Sarai Rivera at the Council's October 30 meeting.

The ordinance prohibiting aggressive begging, soliciting and panhandling in public places aims to respect an individual's potential right to solicit, beg or panhandle while also protecting another's right "to not be unduly coerced." Continuing to beg after receiving a negative response, touching another person or their property, interfering with the free passage of a pedestrian or vehicle and using violent or threatening gestures are among the behaviors categorized as aggressive under the proposed ordinance. The ordinance would also prohibit such aggressive soliciting or panhandling within 20 feet of outdoor cafe seating, ATMs, check cashing businesses and mass transportation stops and facilities.

Violations of the ordinance would carry a fine of $50 for each day that the violation occurred.

The ordinance relative to pedestrian safety would prohibit individuals from walking or standing on traffic islands or on roadways for any purpose other than crossing the roadway at an intersection or designated crosswalk. Violations of the proposed ordinance would also carry a fine of $50.

In response to a request from the City Council, City Solicitor David Moore submitted a legal opinion on the constitutionality of regulating panhandling while allowing tag day solicitations to continue. Both activites have been found to be protected forms of free speech under the First Amendment.

"Allowing tag day solicitations while banning other solicitations would create a distinction based on the content or the nature of the speaker," Moore wrote. "This distinction would not survive scrutiny under the Constitution."

City Manager Michael O'Brien first presented the City Council with several strategies to reduce the amount of panhandling in Worcester this summer, and the City began collecting data shortly afterward on the size and scope of the issue.

As of October 30, the outreach worker tasked with collecting such data had made contact with a total of 38 individuals panhandling in the city, with 17 reporting that they panhandle on a regular basis. Eleven of the 38 have not been located again, but 19 developed relationships with the outreach worker and are in the process of seeking follow-up services through community-based resources.

Eight of the individuals declined follow-up services, and four refused to provide any information.

"The outcomes of the outreach worker's engagement efforts are encouraging," said O'Brien in a letter to the City Council, noting that in the majoriyt of cases, individuals expressed a desire to work with him and obtain assistance.

"However, the outreach, while important, is not a singular solution to reducing the incidence of panhandling."

The two ordinances, addressing aggressive panhandling and pedestrian safety respectively, were crafted with the intention of providing additional pieces for the potential solution to the problem in Worcester.

Christopher Horton, of the Worcester Unemployment Action Group, was against the proposed ordinance because he said it fails to address the deeper, underlying problems of high unemployment and the greater level of need in the community.

"Sweeping this under the rug is not the right way to deal with it," he said.

ACLU Central Mass Field Coordinator Chris Robarge said he was glad to hear the ordinance, which he believes is deserving of further consideration or even reconsideration, was going to committee. He noted several other cases where cities passed overly broad legal measures to curb panhandling that ultimately had unintended and far-reaching consequences.

City Councilor Joseph O'Brien said that while the initial concerns that led to the drafting of the panhandling ordinance were pointed in the right direction, a continued aggressive outreach effort may be the best way forward for Worcester.

"It is part of the reality of cities," he said. "I just don't think it's going to work."

City Councilor Konnie Lukes requested that the City Solicitor report on whether the passed ordinance could include a waiver policy that would allow all groups wishing to pursue tag day solicitations to do so on one or two days each year.

District 4 City Councilor Sarai Rivera said the City Manager's outreach efforts seemed to be having a positive impact and that it might be too soon to jump to more drastic measures.

"You don't measure the success of a program on a few months," she said.

However, City Councilor Michael Germain said that the City Manager had done what the Council asked of him in preparing the ordinance and that the body was aware of the complications it would entail. He went on to say that the ordinance would address the panhandling issue first and foremost, and then the Council can address the issue of tag day solicitations separately.

"I think that's the key issue we have in front of us now," he said. "I think it's incumbent upon this body to support the Manager."

 

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