SLC advocates say panhandling crackdown already under way

SLC » Despite a planned ordinance, a survey shows most panhandlers are homeless and would prefer working.
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The "criminalization" of panhandling is under way in Salt Lake City.

That assertion comes from advocates who are calling on Mayor Ralph Becker to scrap his planned ordinance against "aggressive" begging and instead divert resources to a jobs program.

The proposed statute is a "meaner version of the same thing that hasn't worked for decades," Crossroads Urban Center's Bill Tibbitts said Wednesday from the steps of City Hall.

The group then marched copies of a nonscientific survey, conducted during December and January, to the Mayor's Office. The report compiles interviews with 22 panhandlers in Salt Lake City, revealing 91 percent of them are homeless, while 86 percent said they would prefer working at a minimum-wage job to panhandling.

"What we learned," Tibbitts said, "is very different than some of the rhetoric."

But Becker's proposal does not challenge a person's right to panhandle -- or who does it -- just the tactics.

Becker's chief of staff says there has been a "steady stream" of complaints, noting the administration wants to protect businesses and their patrons without stamping out free speech. The City Attorney's Office is reviewing the measure's language, and it is unclear when it will go to the City Council for a vote.

Meantime, advocates of the homeless insist a crackdown already is happening, noting panhandlers are ticketed, sometimes simply for loitering.

"I was told by somebody last week that he got a ticket for standing still in the sidewalk," said Tibbitts, director of Crossroads' anti-hunger project. "It penalizes people for not having housing. That's a violation of their human rights."

Becker spokeswoman Lisa Harrison Smith said tickets must be based on existing city laws, which cover assault and blocking a public right of way. "There's no panhandling ordinance that is in place now to enforce," she said. "We are looking to have an open dialogue to address their concerns."

The mayor's team will huddle with the critics of the planned ordinance Friday.

Downtown Alliance Executive Director Jason Mathis argues panhandling is a "business," with the same people camped at the same street corners for years. He urges residents not to equate panhandlers to homeless people and to give money to shelters instead. Donated billboards now broadcast the same message across the city.

But the advocates -- 10 representatives from Crossroads, the Anti-Hunger Action Committee and the Coalition of Religious Communities -- criticized the alliance's campaign Wednesday. They also downplayed the call from multiple small-business owners for the city to clamp down.

A frequent panhandler, who identified himself as John Smith, told reporters he has been ticketed in the city and jailed just outside it for soliciting money. The city is not just issuing tickets, Smith said, "they have issued an all-out assault.

"If you don't cease after they give you tickets, they will threaten to incarcerate you, and they will incarcerate you."

Advocates note many of the homeless panhandlers cite a history of mental illness or addiction to drugs and alcohol. At the same time, most of those interviewed said they spend the bulk of their money on food, transportation, laundry, medication and housing.

Some, including a woman who knits, sell their wares at TRAX stations, said Lou Anne Stevenson, co-chairwoman of Anti-Hunger Action. "We could use some more treatment centers," she said. "We need things that give people incentives to help themselves."

Tibbitts said Becker is driving the ordinance, suggesting it never would have been presented by his predecessor, Rocky Anderson.

"The previous mayor," he said, "was a civil-rights attorney who did litigation on behalf of homeless people."

(Anderson, at one time, proposed time, place and manner limits on free speech in hopes of keeping a public easement on the LDS Church's Main Street Plaza. But, in a land-for-peace deal, he wound up swapping that right of way for property to build a west-side community center.)

Smith dismissed the allegation against Becker. The mayor's past career as an attorney and urban planner, she said, "has little bearing on his compassion for the residents of the city."

The planned ordinance, she insisted, is designed to find solutions, not create problems.

But, if it's adopted in its current form, Tibbitts warned, litigation is "extremely likely."

What would the ordinance outlaw?

A draft version of the aggressive-panhandling ordinance outlines time, place and manner restrictions on such begging in the capital. It is based on similar laws from other cities, and would:

Bar panhandling on public transportation and within 20 feet of ATMs, transit platforms, churches, sidewalk cafes and lines of people entering a show.

Make it illegal for panhandlers to impede or stalk residents for money or to use foul language or intimidate them.

Make it a crime to beg while posing as homeless, disabled, stranded or a military veteran.