There is something disturbing about seeing men and women standing near the roadway holding signs and asking for help. It’s hard to ignore a median-strip panhandler when you are sitting in a car stopped at a red light. It makes some people feel angry, others threatened.
But that’s not enough to override the First Amendment to the Constitution, according to U.S. District Judge George Z. Singal. In his ruling Wednesday, Singal struck down a Portland ordinance that banned standing in median strips by pedestrians as “content-based restriction on free speech.”
Judge Singal saw right through the city’s claim that the goal of the ordinance was to protect public safety, correctly pointing out that the ordinance did not prohibit people from posting campaign signs on the medians, which is at least as dangerous as standing still.
This ruling should put to rest an unnecessarily divisive issue within the city at a time when people in and out of City Hall are working collaboratively to address the problems of extreme poverty and homelessness. Removing panhandlers from the roadway might have made some drivers feel better, but it was never going to do anything to improve economic conditions for the city’s poorest.
And although we believe that Singal’s ruling was correct, it also isn’t an answer to this complex problem. Panhandling is a symptom of what’s wrong in our economy not just on the local level, but in the state and nation. Even though the problems weren’t caused here, this is where they are most acute, and the city has to address them.
Six years ago, the country experienced the worst recession since the 1930s. Although the stock market has rebounded, there are still 2 million fewer jobs today than there were in 2007. At the current rate of job growth, we won’t see a jobs recovery until the middle of next year.
PRESSURE ON THE CITY
People at the lowest end of the economic scale have been the slowest to recover, and helping them secure food, housing and health care has swamped social service agencies in the public and private sectors. Portland has been a leader, using case management to get displaced people back into housing quickly and find permanent placements for chronically homeless men and women.
But the state has not been a good partner in these efforts, cutting aid to cities and towns, putting more pressure on local taxpayers. That added to the number of people out on the streets and increased demands on the city to do something about it.
The ordinance that was drafted as a result turned out to be a waste of time and city resources. Poverty was the correct problem to address, but this was the wrong response.
Mayor Michael Brennan and members of the City Council should use this opportunity to call attention to the economic stresses that lead to panhandling and work to address the real problems and not their symptoms.