June 13, 2013

Panhandling solutions imperfect

(Continued from page 1)

The money will go directly to participating social service agencies to feed, clothe and shelter the poor, O'Neil said. Each donor might even get a small token or card to be passed on, in lieu of money, to the next panhandler who crosses their path. (Look for lots of little cards on high-traffic median strips.)

It is, acknowledged O'Neil, a "market-based approach" to the panhandling pandemic.


"You let the market determine whether or not (panhandling) is a viable activity," O'Neil said. "The theory is that if a panhandler can yield 10 bucks an hour at an intersection and we change the dynamic with a program like this, where he can only do two dollars an hour, the proliferation of panhandling is diminished."

O'Neil noted that Boise, Idaho, is but one of "dozens if not hundreds of communities" throughout the country where the program already has succeeded.

Maybe, maybe not: According to Adam Park, spokesman for the city of Boise, its "Have a Heart" program simply refers people to worthy charities; it doesn't collect donations. "And we still have panhandlers," Park told me.

Closer to home, some in the social services community are ambivalent at best about a business-based coalition inserting itself between those who need a dime and those who can spare it.

At the Preble Street Resource Center, Executive Director Mark Swann said the board has already voted not to affiliate with the "Have a Heart" campaign.

"We appreciate them thinking of us, but the board has looked at this initiative and declined to participate," Swann said, declining to elaborate.

(My guess: Preble Street's board of directors has concluded that, for all its lofty rhetoric, "Have a Heart" looks and sounds more like a street sweeper than a vehicle for social enhancement.)

Moving right along, we have the city's proposed ban on the use of medians by pedestrians. This seemingly common-sense measure drew many a speaker Tuesday evening before the public safety committee unanimously recommended its passage by the City Council.

Swann said Preble Street decided to neither support nor oppose the median-strip ban after receiving assurances from city officials that it has everything to do with public safety and nothing to do with panhandlers' well-established First Amendment right to ask for spare change.

Not so for the Maine chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. Zach Heiden, its legal director, said in an interview Tuesday that his organization will sue if the city goes ahead with the median-strip ban.

Heiden's reasoning: The city must present a "real, substantial record" of a public-safety problem (where are the accident reports?) and attempts at less restrictive solutions (panhandling permits, anyone?) before it can simply declare a "traditional public forum" (including streets, sidewalks and, yes, medians) off limits for any and all purposes.

Then there's the simple reality that some median strips pose more danger than others.

Or, as Heiden so artfully put it, "not all median strips are created equal."

Not sure I agree with you there, counselor. But I'll give you a buck to say that in open court.


Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:


Twitter: @BillNemitz NOTE TO READERS

BECAUSE OF TECHNICAL problems, this story did not run in its entirety Wednesday. We are reprinting it here today.


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