Cities Adopt Tough Stance against Beggars ; Municipalities Are Making Arrests under 'Aggressive Panhandling' Laws despite Freedom of Speech Concerns
Patrik Jonsson Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor
As one of 85 licensed panhandlers in Raleigh, Leon Black is supposed to stay off the streets at night and keep mum as he rattles his cup.
But following that rule would keep him away from his best market - late-night club-hoppers. "Got some change?" he asks with a hangdog face from the sidewalk, courteously breaking the rules.
It's the plight of the panhandler: silenced, sidelined, and maligned. But with up to $150 a day at stake, Mr. Black, who spends $90 a week for a bed in a flophouse, says it's a job like any other.
Thirteen years after the courts struck down New York's draconian antipanhandling laws, the age-old issue of how to deal with the lowest rungs of the American economy is once again at the top of municipal agendas as lawmakers focus anew on freeloaders, flimflam men, and "unsolicited service providers," who pretend to be tour guides. To get around First Amendment protections, cities across the country are prosecuting new "aggressive panhandling" rules that focus on public safety and the greater economic good, all in order to deal with the No. 1 visitor complaint to American urban areas: too many people scrounging for change.
But is it really legal for municipalities to corner the market and silence street-savvy entrepreneurs who exhibit tenacious tactics similar to those that Americans cherish in their corporate boardrooms?
"In general, public parks, sidewalks, and streets are places where First Amendment rights are still zealously protected in this country," says Ed Johnson, a lawyer for the Oregon Law Center in Portland, which represents the homeless. "The government can make reasonable restrictions on those rights as long as there's some kind of compelling government interest - but that's where the issue gets blurry."
So far, cities have managed to avoid First Amendment challenges by citing broader societal damage from panhandlers - including safety concerns. Over concerns of the impact on the local economy, Fort Lauderdale, Fla., made its five-mile strip of beach off-limits to panhandlers. Orlando, Fla., has swept out beggars from certain parts of town, instead setting aside "blue box" zones where soliciting is allowed. As a result, the number of panhandlers has dropped to almost zero around tourist attractions.
Raleigh and Greensboro, N.C., license their beggars, but admit it's mainly a means to control aggressive behavior. Minneapolis, Portland, Ore., Nashville, Tenn., and Evanston, Ill., are other cities in the process of cracking down on begging that bothers tourists. …