Banning panhandling – a national trend in hard times?

panhandling ban

This man at the corner of W. North Avenue and N. Howard Street said a panhandling ban is unfair: “I’m not hurting anybody.”

Photo by: Fern Shen

The crackdown on “aggressive panhandling” proposed by Baltimore City Councilwoman Rochelle “Rikki” Spector this week is part of an apparent uptick nationwide in such prohibitions – according to a survey of 122 cities cited in a New York Times  story in October.

The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty found there was a 7 percent increase in laws against begging or panhandling between 2009 and 2011, the Times reported.

“Our sense is that cities are responding to the increasing number of chronically or visibly homeless people due to the economic crisis,” the Center’s Heather Maria Johnson told the Times. “Rather than addressing the issue of homelessness, they are adapting measures that move homeless people out of downtowns, tourist areas or even out of a city.”

The article says case law on the issue has varied over the years, but that recent legal decisions have favored the homeless.

Harmless or a Hazard?

Spector’s bill would bar people from panhandling in medians, shoulders and in traffic.

A drive down Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard today was impeded for what turned out to be a man in the shoulder in a wheelchair.

Cars turning right on W. Fayette Street  had to go slowly and carefully around the man, who did not appear to be asking for anything and was just sitting in the chair, which was very nearly in the roadway.

Later, a man walking in the W. North Avenue median with a sign that said “Homeless, cold and hungry, please help” said he had heard about the proposal to make what he was doing illegal.

“I don’t get why they have to do that, I’m not hurting anyone,” he said. “I’m just down on my luck.”

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  • ushanellore

    And he’s right, the man with the placard.  And there will be many more of these as the population rises and the job market shrinks or is entirely shifted abroad or handed over to robots. 

    Panhandlers or beggars as they are called in many other places, are a common sight in the Third World.  There too they are regarded as nuisances and during ceremonial days and celebrations, they are driven or whisked out of sight by the police.  Out of sight, out of mind is the motto of the powerful and the wealthy who, not for one minute, think but for their good fortune they could be sailing in the same boat as the homeless. 

    In India, middle class bus takers and walkers adopted their own special panhandlers.  I loved this woman who made me laugh, regaled me with a lot of riproarious tales and never failed to ask me about my life every time she saw me at the bus stop by the General Hospital, in good old Chennai.  She was a classy and humorous panhandler.  Since she was my adoptee I took care of her.  I brought her presents for Diwali, gave her money for food everyday and stood talking with her, missing buses that would have taken me home earlier from college. 

    Those were the days–they just smelled right and felt right.  There was a human glow to them.  We understood each other, the college student and the panhandler, that life flits and swats down even the mighty, that death is everyone’s release from bondage and the most egalitarian of them all is the sickle wielder– more so even than Lady Liberty.  She was a philosopher– the panhandler I loved and cherished.  She chalked up her plight to destiny and was sure that reincarnated, she would return as a student, such as I.  She was always interested in my performance in school and wished me luck on my exams.  She was my talisman.

    I know my collegemates, each adopted a panhandler at the bus stop.  Our purpose was neither a ferocious fight against poverty nor an eradication of it.  Our purpose was to know the joy people felt despite the burden of poverty.  Our purpose was to help as much as we could and feel blessed and gratified by the help we gave.  And we were more than rewarded for what we gave–we were loved and we were visited every day at the bus stop by these interesting story tellers. They were our secrets from our parents.  They were the people we couldn’t talk to, they were the dirty ones who “carried the diseases” and they were the ones who were irredeemable, as per the standards of the middle class elders.  But to us, college going teens, they were the carefree adventurers, the alchemists who could turn the mundane monotony of our existence to the fizz of forbidden fanta–the orange soda that was all the rage in India then.                  

    • Gerald Neily

      The kinds of human panhandler interactions of which Usha so beautifully writes have become less the norm in Baltimore even as our Third World status increases. Panhandlers have increasingly taken to the auto-oriented median strips, even as they’ve been redesigned with humps or slopes in lame attempts to discourage such use. Maybe it’s increased visibility or volume, maybe it’s because auto drivers are the ones with money rather than pedestrians and bus stop dwellers, or maybe motorists are just more likely guilt-ridden suburbanites.

      Baltimore already has anti-panhandling laws, right? We at least have traffic safety laws. It seems passing more laws is a cathartic end in itself, regardless of enforcement. Maybe just having laws to hold over people’s heads provides sufficient intimidation value regardless of their constitutional validity. And since drivers will just whisk away, perhaps they are less likely to complain to the nearest law enforcement person or Downtown Partnership Safety Guide about median based panhandlers.

  • exspworker

     Then start with the local, State and Federal Governments because our elected officials, or public servants have evolved into sanctioned panhandlers themselves by always seeking new and innovative ways of getting their hands deeper into the tax payers pockets.As this trend will continue and jobs become more scarce we will become a broken society. We are on the way there now.

  • James Hunt

    Brew wrote: Spector’s bill would bar people from panhandling in medians, shoulders and in traffic.


    Alternatively, the city could mandate that they wear orange safety vests and “Hello, My Name Is ____________” tags. These folks aren’t going away. Might as well get to know them, or at make sure drivers can see them.

  • Juan Valdez

    I think Baltimore is squandering a possible money making resource. Homeless people are one of two things, mentally ill or drug addicts. Instead of hiding them away, we should track the addicts with GPS and start a “Wire” themed tour that drives by the ones which are leaning the best that day. Throw in an orange couch in the middle of Gillmore Homes and we’re talking major tourist potential.

    The best part is, if this were run by the city, or a nonprofit, they could use the funds to finally fund addiction treatments past their pathetically low admission rate (half of which are taken up by junkies in the county). Imagine that, addicts “working” for their own cure.

    Maybe that’s just me, but if I learned anything from my website it’s that I see problems different than most people…

  • exspworker

    Sometime in the near future there will not be enough street corners unless there is drastic changes made!

    • Walter

      I agree with you ex- Sparrows Point Worker that it looks like we are going to need more street corners because Sparrows Point is closed and we are hearing that Baltimore County is only interested in issuing permits for construction and waste dumps in Dundalk and Sparrows Point. Maybe an “alternative energy” electric generation plant down there so they can employ a handful of people to watch the  imported trash burn? They promised us South American Steel Barons,  Casinos, Cruise Ship and super-sized container ship terminals, clean modern industry, a Hopkins Campus, but we are only seeing the perimeter of the old mill being used for trash dumps and bulk storage areas of some kind of black ore dumped from overseas ships. How can they market the land for anything that is nice and makes well-paying jobs for the future when they are surrounding the old mill with this kind of crap?  No future for our young people and no one wants us oldtimers.

      Yes Sir, I am going to find me a nice busy street corner and supplement my SS and non-existent pension with nice tax free cash, maybe I will sell Roses and sell ice water during the summer months too.  I am off the buy a Squeeze so I can also clean your car windows while you are looking for spare change!  Not a bad idea, no boss, no Union dues, no taxes or clock to punch!

  • cwals99

    Criminalizing the poor is all about finding ways not only to push them to leave a city but it is a policy for creating the framework for limiting and or eliminating the poor’s ability to access social benefits and housing.  When you ticket people over and over for small things like loitering and in this case panhandling…knowing they will not be able to pay…you make them felons over time as has been the case in Baltimore since O’Malley years here.

    When people are made felons for almost nothing they lose not only current options for getting back on track but it effects their entire life.  Disenfranchisement is only one and it is deliberate.  If the city doesn’t want to see panhandlers then pick them up and take them to a job that pays a living wage.  Don’t wait to imprison them and then give them as prison labor for corporate profits.  How shameful are these pols?

  • Carol Ott

    What I don’t understand is our city council’s insistence on making new laws, when we already have existing laws on the books that are rarely enforced.  Surely Councilwoman Spector has bigger fish to fry in her district (like cleaning up the vacants, perhaps?) than panhandlers.

    Most of these folks are in need of mental health services — instead of criminalizing them, or enacting more meaningless feel-good puff laws, find a way to get them connected to the organizations that actually have a shot at helping them.

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