July 17, 2013

Residents, visitors support Portland panhandling ban

The ACLU is considering legal action against Portland for infringing on First Amendment rights.

By Karen Antonacci kantonacci@mainetoday.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND – Portlanders and visitors to the city reacted positively Tuesday to a City Council vote Monday to ban panhandling and other activities in the medians dividing city streets.

click image to enlarge

A man panhandles on a median on the corner of Marginal Way and Forest Avenue in Portland on July 16, 2013.

Tim Greenway / Staff Photographer

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Leah Ledoux of Portland said the ban is needed. She said she has given money to intoxicated panhandlers on medians and she worries they might stray into traffic.

"They're right there in the middle of the street with traffic coming on both ends. It's not safe," Ledoux said. "It's sad though. It's not an easy situation."

The City Council voted 6-0 Monday to ban panhandling for money or otherwise loitering in the city's street medians. Some of the councilors reversed the votes they cast on a similar proposal a year ago, saying the increasing number of panhandlers around the city has created a safety risk.

The ban won't take effect until Aug. 15, but panhandlers may already be feeling less welcome.

Several people standing in street medians with signs asking for money on Tuesday declined to be interviewed.

Matt McCloskey, a visitor from New Hampshire, agreed that the ban makes sense. "If somebody has an addiction, or they're woozy or something, they could step into traffic," he said.

But some said the action was about more than safety.

Ben Algeo, who works in Portland, said that panhandling in the medians does pose a safety risk. But he thinks part of the reason for the ordinance is to make the city look better to visitors.

"It's a tourist town and that's definitely part of it," he said. "I think the initiative solves a small part of a bigger problem. There's still a lot of poor (people) in Portland, some homeless and some not homeless. If they're off the median, they're just going to be on benches."

Police Chief Michael Sauschuck said that when the ban takes effect, city police will start warning loiterers to leave the medians.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine is considering legal action against the city for infringing on First Amendment rights, said Zachary Heiden, the group's legal director.

"The courts have allowed the government to regulate free expression in public places. What's not allowed is bans of speech activity, which the city of Portland has now done," he said.

Heiden pointed out that the ordinance prohibits all activities on medians, including political campaigning.

While some opponents of the ban have said the police and city councilors simply want to make panhandlers less visible, Heiden said he does not think that is true.

But, Heiden said, "for members of the public that are supporting the ordinance, I do think so."

 

Karen Antonacci can be contacted at 791-6377 or:

kantonacci@pressherald.com

 

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