PORTLAND – In 30 days, it will be illegal for anyone to loiter in the city’s street medians for any reason, including panhandling.
The City Council voted 6-0 Monday to impose the ban. Councilors John Anton, Jill Duson and Cheryl Leeman were absent.
Police Chief Michael Sauschuck said in an interview that when the ban takes effect, police will begin by issuing warnings to people in medians.
“I think education will start immediately, because it’s a new thing for everybody,” he said.
Supporters of the ordinance said it is needed to protect public safety — both for panhandlers and the traveling public. Panhandlers sometimes walk into the street and almost get hit by cars, and some drivers stop abruptly to give people money.
Opponents of the ban argued that it is disingenuous for city councilors, police and businesses to say they are concerned about the homeless when there’s a lack of affordable housing and jobs, and substance abuse and mental health programs.
Last year, the council rejected a similar ordinance that drew stiff opposition from advocates for the homeless, social services agencies and civil rights advocates.
Since then, city and neighborhood officials say, there has been an explosion in panhandling, especially at some of the city’s busiest intersections.
In response to increasing concerns, police compared complaints about median-strip panhandling from January through May 2012 to the same period this year. Complaints increased about 23 percent, from 101 last year to 124 this year.
“Most of the forays into the street are from the medians,” Sauschuck said.
Addressing the council, he read from pages of transcripts of calls from people complaining about median panhandlers, some of whom kicked cars or intimidated drivers at stop lights.
Several of the descriptions of panhandlers — including one who held a sign indicating the person was an out-of-work bank robber who needed money for guns — generated chuckles from the audience.
But opponents of the ban weren’t laughing.
Zachary Heiden, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, said after the meeting that the group is “seriously considering” legal action against the city, arguing that the ban is unconstitutional.
“We feel it goes too far in burdening constitutionally protected activities,” he said. “The Constitution does not allow you to address these problems with such a broad stroke.”
One resident, Greg Gould, said the ordinance wouldn’t solve anything, “except making the medians look nicer.”
“You’re just taking people from one spot and putting them in another,” he said.
Dee Clarke, an advocate with Homeless Voices for Justice, said 30 homeless people died last year because of a lack of affordable housing, emergency shelters, detox beds and social services.
No one died from loitering in the medians, she said.
Clarke said the issue of medians is drawing attention because it puts poverty front and center, and makes people uncomfortable.
“The safety concerns don’t end in the medians,” she said.
Doug Fuss, the owner of Bull Feeney’s and the immediate past president of Portland’s Downtown District, said not everyone who panhandles is homeless. He said banning loitering in medians would not mean the city isn’t compassionate.
“We are a caring community that helps those in need,” Fuss said. “We should all give to organizations that help those in need.”
Councilor Edward Suslovic took it a step further, challenging people to find a city similar in size to Portland that offers as many services for the homeless and has an active outreach program.
Tim McNamara, president of the St. John Valley Neighborhood Association, said the ordinance doesn’t go far enough to address the public safety issue. He said the city should ban pedestrians from making transactions with people in vehicles.
“Let’s not go halfway with this ordinance,” McNamara said.
Councilor Nicholas Mavodones Jr. was one of the councilors who opposed the ordinance last year, for fear that it was targeting the homeless.
“I have come a long way from where I was when we last took this up,” said Mavodones, who supported the ban.
Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at: