November 20, 2007

Representin’:We’re growing up - Does the panhandling ordinance mean Louisville has arrived?

When it finally appears for a vote by the full Metro Council in a few weeks, the aptly named panhandling ordinance will pass. The public safety committee, which tabled it last week to hear additional testimony, is almost fully supportive at this point — the lone holdout appears to be Judy Green, D-1. Don’t expect her tune to change.The proposal is actually an amendment to the current law. Its purpose, according to its co-sponsors — David Tandy, D-4, and George Unseld, D-6 — is to specifically define “aggressive panhandling.” When it passes, people asking for money on the street would be subject to a $250 fine or 90 days in jail if they:1) Persist in asking you for money once you’ve said no2) Use profanity at you once you’ve said no3) Touch you4) Block your path, either on the sidewalk or in the street5) Approach you within 20 feet of an ATM or bank, outdoor dining area, parking garage, public restroom, school or bus stop6) Approach you within six feet of any public building7) Attempt to wash your windows or perform some other service that you have not requested8) Approach you after dark With “aggressive panhandling” codified, police would have a better way to deal with people who take their begging too far, the councilmen said. As with most any law, the panhandling ordinance will be enforced with police discretion: an officer must witness these behaviors to make an arrest. “(We’re trying) to strike a balance,” Tandy said of the proposal, which would not criminalize passive panhandling. Doing that would be limiting one’s free speech, and thus, violate the First Amendment. Except for the provision criminalizing all begging after dark, this proposal seems to have a rational scope. No matter how compassionate and giving you are, I can’t imagine anyone is comfortable being asked repeatedly for money, particularly if you’re standing at the ATM with a stack of twenties in your hand. Homeless advocates try to equate this manner of begging with the general epidemic of homelessness and its associated tragedies: hunger, sub-par housing, low minimum wage. While I find this argument disingenuous at best, it is beyond the real point here: Because of the hysterical reaction to the panhandling proposal, Tandy, Unseld and all kinds of others — most of them representing downtown interests — have suddenly found it necessary to publicly contort in order to make sure we know they care about Louisville’s homeless population. (Not to say they don’t.) During a press conference last week, Tandy and Unseld contended that downtown interests didn’t spark the proposal, even though everyone who spoke in favor of the thing represented some downtown interest. The only statistics made available to reporters were of incidents downtown: 82 instances of aggressive panhandling last year, 82 so far this year. LMPD Major Ozzy Gibson (head of the First Division, covering downtown) said those were probably committed by a handful of people at most. Meanwhile, Marlene Gordon, director of the Coalition for the Homeless, trotted out info cards that people will be encouraged to hand out in place of money. The cards have contact information for local shelters. Also, Gordon proposed that the city use old parking meters as random donation sites, and said that your dollar or two would make more of a difference going to organizations like hers than into the hands of some hungry war vet in a tattered jacket. Why can’t we just be honest here: Some people who come downtown — locals, conventioneers, suburbanites — are afraid of the poor, the homeless, the begging. They have disposable income, and they have a means to complain. So, despite the staggeringly low statistics and monument of apocrypha supporting this ordinance, we’re going to make it harder to panhandle. If I’ve got it on me, I will always give to somebody in need, and I don’t really care what he or she uses it for. At least I know it’s not going to pay the salaries of people so plagued with cash-guilt they can’t be a little more straightforward. Contact the writer at sgeorge@leoweekly.com