September 9, 2013

Biddeford may join others, limit panhandling

As in Portland, residents' complaints lead to proposals to ban the activity on medians, and raise constitutional concerns.

By Gillian Graham ggraham@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

BIDDEFORD - Biddeford is the latest Maine community to consider limits on panhandling as more people are taking to the streets and sidewalks to ask passers-by for cash.

click image to enlarge

A woman accepts money from a motorist Friday while panhandling from a median on Route 111 in Biddeford. Her sign reads: “Homeless, hungry, & sober ... Please help!”

Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

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The city joins a growing number of communities across the state and country to consider policies aimed at keeping panhandlers off street medians and preventing so-called aggressive panhandling. A policy committee of the Biddeford City Council will take up the issue Monday.

The city of Portland last month enacted a policy that prohibits people from loitering in medians, effectively pushing panhandlers out of medians and onto sidewalks. The Lewiston City Council cast an initial vote to ban people from standing in medians and aggressively panhandling, and is expected to easily approve the measure Sept. 17.

Similar steps have been taken in cities across the U.S. by officials who cite concerns about public safety, leading to complaints that communities are violating free speech rights and trying to keep poverty out of sight rather than address its root causes.

Biddeford city officials say the ban on standing in street medians would apply to anyone and is not directed solely at panhandlers. However, it is being proposed in response to a growing number of people who are standing in busy intersections to solicit money from passing drivers.

Panhandlers were a rare sight in the city until the last few months, and their presence has drawn complaints and calls for city officials to address the issue.

"Economically, it's a sign of the times," said Mayor Alan Casavant, who has received numerous emails and phone calls from residents concerned about panhandling. "The question comes down to how we deal with it."

Casavant said he asked city officials to bring a proposal forward based on the feedback he got from residents.

Panhandlers are now seen almost daily on medians or at downtown street corners. On Friday, a lone panhandler stood in the median of the entrance to The Home Depot on Route 111 holding a sign that read, "Homeless, hungry, & sober ... Please help!" The unidentified woman declined to be interviewed.

Police Chief Roger Beaupre said the proposed ordinance would ban people from sitting, standing, staying, driving or parking on a median. While the ban would apply to everyone other than people actively crossing the street, the most frequent problem with people in medians is panhandlers near the Maine Turnpike interchange and Biddeford Crossing shopping plaza on Route 111, he said.

"I personally see this as a potential public safety risk with people standing there. It's a distraction," said Beaupre, who supports the changes. "I'm not opposed to the panhandling part, but I'm opposed to creating risks."

The policy committee also will consider a ban on "abusive solicitation," which includes blocking people from walking, following people while asking for donations, or threatening or touching someone else. Beaupre said that policy proposal was prompted in part by a recent incident in which a panhandler approached a car parked at a gas station and aggressively asked a man and his children for money.

Beaupre said the city has to be careful to weigh people's constitutional rights with safety concerns, especially in high-traffic intersections.

"This mirrors (the policies) Portland has in place. I'm not trying to reinvent the wheel here," Beaupre said. "It's not going to ban panhandling. People can still panhandle on the sidewalk. If you want to stand there with a sign, that's one thing. If you're going to bother people, block their free passage or touch them in any way, that is inappropriate and needs to be dealt with."

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine is still considering whether to challenge Portland's street median panhandling ban in court and has similar concerns about the proposed ban in Biddeford, said spokeswoman Rachel Healy.

"Like the Portland ban before it, this proposal definitely raises constitutional concerns. First of all, it appears to ban all manner of constitutionally protected activity, including holding a political sign, collecting signatures or even stopping to talk to a friend," Healy said. "Further, it is unnecessary since there are already laws against people being intoxicated in public, blocking traffic or threatening motorists."

Last month, a Michigan law banning panhandling in public places was struck down by a federal appeals court. The American Civil Liberties Union initially filed the suit in 2011 on behalf of two men who were arrested for begging.

A Utah law banning begging near roads was last year deemed unconstitutional by a federal judge. The ACLU of Massachusetts has filed a lawsuit against the city of Worcester for enacting two anti-panhandling ordinances, one of which prohibits panhandling from street medians.

City Councilor Bob Mills, who chairs the Biddeford council's policy committee, said the committee could vote as soon as Monday to forward its recommendation on the new ordinances to the full council. The City Council will hold a public hearing on the proposal before voting. 

Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at:

ggraham@mainetoday.com

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