Hey, city, can you spare the appeal?

Monday, June 1, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Cincinnati officials are talking about appealing a federal magistrate's decision that struck down the city's ban on panhandling and sitting on sidewalks.

My advice: Forget it. Move on to other issues. Such an appeal is, at best, misguided, and could cost us a bundle.

Not that I'm wild about bums bearing cups, sprawled out on city sidewalks or hitting people up for spare change near storefronts, parking meters and ATMs.

Panhandlers can be a problem. But, to the degree that they exist in Cincinnati, tools are already in place to fix this problem. Laws against aggressive panhandling remain on the books. We just have to enforce them.

To appeal the magistrate's decision shows a serious disregard for everyone's free-speech rights. The sidewalk is a public forum. Nobody should make needless rules about what you can do on it.

Spare change

On Friday, I conducted a highly unscientific survey asking strolling downtown workers and various merchants about street beggars. Most had no problem with panhandlers.

"Panhandling hasn't been a problem around the Maisonette for five years," said managing partner Nat Comisar.

"Panhandlers are sporadic," said Jaime Williams, manager of the Starbucks at Fourth and Vine. "Four regulars show up in the afternoon. We might see a total of 10 a week. If we ask them to leave, they go."

The number Jaime cited for her street corner sounded about right. Cincinnati police reports put downtown's panhandler population at 30.

Cathy Trusler and Dorcas Kirby work downtown at Cincinnati Bell. Three or four times a week, when the weather's right, they dine alfresco or take a noontime walk.

"I've worked downtown 27 years," Cathy said as she ate pizza at a sidewalk cafe. "No one has ever asked me for money."

Dorcas wondered "why the city is messing with panhandlers when there are more important things to do."

Panhandlers are "a constant problem" for Jim Mardis, manager of the Fifth and Race Walgreens.

"We always have at least one outside our doors. I run them back to the curb and threaten to call the cops or they follow people into the store."

When I told Jim Mardis' story to Phillip George, he shook his head. "Those aggressive people make it hard for the rest of us," he said.

Phillip is a panhandler. He's worked up and down Fourth Street for five years. On Friday, he sat silently in front of Julius Baer Florist. He held a souvenir cup from last week's Taste of Cincinnati and a sign, "Homeless, please help."

"I tell other people out on the street not to follow folks into stores," Phillip said. "You make more money sitting here like I do, just minding your own business and saying thank you when somebody gives you something."

I caught up with Star Bank employee David Whitaker as he walked to lunch from his downtown office. The recent Tulsa transplant has been approached, "but never bothered by a panhandler. All of them are so polite here. They come up to you and say: "Sir, can I ask you a question?' Tell them "no' and they go away. They can take "no' for an answer."

He wishes the city would do the same and drop plans to appeal the federal magistrate's decision. "I worry that in the name of not being inconvenienced we'll spend lots of money with little return on our investment."

Paying the price

If panhandlers are a problem, call the cops. The police are trained to handle aggressive people, and the laws are on the books. Most panhandlers are not a problem. But the bad ones can be arrested for disorderly conduct or even assault. That's how it works.

If the city appeals, the lesson could be very expensive. The city already must pay attorneys' fees for both sides of the panhandling case.

Steven Stuhlbarg, a victorious attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, puts his side's bill "in the tens of thousands." Mount the appeal and lose it and his bill doubles.

Who's paying for this? We are, with our taxes.

Cincinnati has plenty of other ways to spend that money. Using it to add unnecessary laws for a problem that does not exist is, well, stupid.

Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.