Anyone who’s been on the streets around Portland’s Interstate 295 exits or on some of the city’s busiest thoroughfares has seen people in the street medians, holding cardboard signs with pleas for help.

Starting Aug. 14, it will be illegal for them to be there. Portland city councilors voted Monday to prohibit people from loitering in the city’s street medians for any reason. The amended ordinance that got the council’s approval doesn’t use the word “panhandling,” but reducing that practice is what the proposal’s supporters were after.

Now that the median-strip panhandling ban has been passed, we hope the discussion about panhandlers will continue.

They’re part of an impoverished population whose health and well-being will continue to be at risk, regardless of where they’re asking for money. If the debate over the ban doesn’t segue into further exploration of how to address this complex public policy issue, the amendment might make panhandlers and poverty less visible, but it won’t offer any real solutions.

The ban appears to be designed less to help ensure panhandlers’ safety than to address motorists’ feelings of discomfort; Portland police cited numerous complaints of intimidation. Research on the reaction of passers-by to panhandling has shown that the context matters. Drivers, for example, are more likely to feel intimidated if they’re stuck in traffic near a stoplight than if they can drive away easily.

Other motorists told police that people asking for money in medians were getting drunk and falling into traffic or punching drivers who refused to give money. There already are rules barring public intoxication and assault; the new amendment doesn’t do anything to strengthen them.

Backers of the median-strip panhandling ban also point to an increase in the number of panhandlers, especially at intersections, and statistics back them up. But the rise in people asking for money shouldn’t be a surprise, considering the combined impact of the increased need for help and the decreased amount of support.

The Great Recession hit Maine hard: Unemployment here was 6.9 percent in December 2008, as the global economy was imploding, kept climbing until it topped out at 8.4 percent in early 2010 and didn’t fall below 7 percent again until this past April. Meanwhile, the last two legislative sessions have seen major cutbacks in needed services, including General Assistance, affordable housing, MaineCare and mental health and substance abuse programs.

The passage of the median-strip panhandling ban takes off the table an issue that’s loomed large recently.

Now the city can more fully focus on how to help panhandlers and all others in need, given the challenging current circumstances — and the panhandling ban should be only part of this effort.


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