September 20, 2012The Greensboro City Council unanimously approved a resolution drastically restricting where panhandling is legal.
It is now a misdemeanor to panhandle within 1,000 feet of interstate access ramps or interchanges or within 100 feet of any financial institution, including ATMs. Shoulders, curbs, medians, rights-of-way and both "marked and unmarked crosswalks" on streets and highways are also now off limits.
The resolution also changed a prohibition on panhandling under the influence of non-prescription drugs or alcohol to a broader ban on panhandling under the "impairing influence of any drug, alcohol, chemical or controlled substance."
Restrictions from the previous ordinance are still in effect and include bans on panhandling in parking areas, on any sidewalk adjacent to a movie theater, outdoor theater or palladium, within 20 feet of a parking meter or within 300 feet of any public or private school. The restriction on parking meters excludes much of downtown.
One of the few places that people are allowed to panhandle are sidewalks, provided it isn't a sidewalk in any of the prohibited areas.
The amended ordinance also changes the restrictions on who can obtain a panhandler's license. An applicant is ineligible if convicted of two or more violent felony or misdemeanor offenses in last five years.
Violent crimes include assault, communication of threats, illegal use of a firearm and acts of attempted violence. A person convicted of a more serious crime is ineligible for 10 years.
One or more homicide convictions within the last 20 years will also disqualify an applicant.
Previously there were no distinctions between felony levels and no specific provision for homicide convictions in the eligibility guidelines.
Greensboro Police Chief Ken Miller spoke in favor of the amended ordinance, along with Police Department Attorney Jim Clark, who helped craft the legislation. Both said that the changes were in the interest of public safety, and in response to citizen complaints.
"The intention of this is to keep panhandlers out of traffic," Clark said.
Miller cited 32 traffic "near misses" that had been reported associated with panhandling, but said there had been no direct hits. Miller also said that since 2010 the Greensboro Police Department had received 646 calls to service over panhandling complaints. Almost half of the calls were "criminal activity related," involving trespassing and other activities which were already illegal.
Miller and Clark said state law limits how restrictive city panhandling laws can be, as the activity is a form of free speech, but the ordinance amendment brought Greensboro in line with what the state allows. Clark referred to the remaining areas where panhandlers are still allowed as "free speech zones."
There were two speakers in opposition to the ordinance change, both of whom identified themselves as panhandlers.
Kori Burt said that without the "privilege" of panhandling "I would be in one of the shelters, some of us would be committing crimes in order to make ends meet."
Burt said that while she shared Miller's concern for safety, she was also concerned that the stricter ordinance would affect panhandlers who weren't contributing to crime or nuisances. She said some thought that the ordinance was meant to "shut us down."
"Please consider us a little more than just riffraff, because we are people," Burt said.
William Radisch, another panhandler, also spoke in opposition. "It's kind of hard to start over when you're 57," he said when asked by Councilmember Dianne Bellamy-Small if he had any alternatives to panhandling.
"I hope not to be out there for the rest of my life," he said. Radisch said that he has been trying to sell drawings as a means of supplementing his income.
Radisch also said that he stayed away from the interstates and didn't harass people. He also said he kept his area clean and turned in lost items like book bags and laptops that he found.
Both Radisch and Burt emphasized that there are problem individuals in every group, but that not everyone in that group should be penalized for it.
Councilmember Nancy Vaughan asked Radisch if he was familiar with the Interactive Resource Center, which reaches out to panhandlers, and he said that he was.
"I think this is a good ordinance," said Vaughan, adding, "The changes, all in all are kind of minor."
Vaughan also said that she had received complaints about "aggressive panhandling" around ATM machines, and was glad the ordinance increased the buffer around financial institutions.
Vaughan requested that a picture from the News & Record of a woman asking for money on a median be shown to demonstrate the safety risks associated with panhandling. However, according to that News & Record article, the woman pictured was not a panhandler but was soliciting on behalf of a nonprofit, which Radisch pointed out.
Vaughan said that she felt the ordinance was necessary for the sake of both panhandlers and motorists. "Nobody ever made the comment that we need to do away with panhandling," Vaughan said. She added that it was something that could be done in a safer manner.
During a 10-minute recess before the item was heard by the council, Miller had made the comment that "no panhandling would be my preference," but that state law required that it be allowed.
Councilmember Zack Matheny also voiced support for the ordinance change, and said that he didn't feel that Radisch would be affected by the new restrictions because he didn't frequent the newly restricted areas.
The resolution was approved 9 to 0 with Mayor Robbie Perkins and Councilmembers Marikay Abuzuaiter, Nancy Hoffmann, Yvonne Johnson, Jim Kee, Trudy Wade, Bellamy-Small, Matheny and Vaughan voting in favor.