Sunday, May 4, 2003

Beggar law has wide support

Liberal, conservative sponsor ordinance

By Gregory Korte
The Cincinnati Enquirer

A get-tough move requiring street beggars to register with the city has a compassionate side. It calls for $50,000 for a social worker to steer panhandlers toward programs to find jobs, help with drug or alcohol problems or at least a bed and a hot meal.

• Requires panhandlers to register with the city.
• Provides social worker to help panhandlers find jobs, drug treatment programs or a bed and a hot meal.
• Faces a public hearing before the Law & Public Safety Committee at 7 p.m. May 12 at City Hall.
The panhandling ordinance to be introduced this week in Cincinnati City Council would require people to register before asking passers-by for a handout.

It is co-sponsored by Republican Pat DeWine and Democrat David Crowley - arguably City Council's most conservative and most liberal members. They hope the marriage of the get-tough registration requirement with the more compassionate social program will help pass the proposal without much of the ideological squabbling that has characterized the debate in the past.

"We're going to take a hit from the people on the left, who say its an infringement of their First Amendment rights, and on the right, who will say it's a license to beg," Crowley said. "But to me, it's just common sense."

The registration scheme is borrowed from Dayton, where City Manager Valerie Lemmie and Solicitor J. Rita McNeil successfully used it to curtail panhandling before they came to Cincinnati.

Panhandlers would be required to get a free photo identification card from the police department or - for those who may have some reason not to go to the police - from the Cincinnati Health Department. Those who violate the panhandling law by being too aggressive could have their permit revoked; those without a permit could be arrested and fined.

Pat Clifford, general coordinator of the Drop Inn Center, a homeless shelter for men in Over-the-Rhine, says the social worker plan is a step in the right direction. But he worries that the most aggressive panhandlers will ignore the ordinance.

"It'll be awhile before (the impact of ) this hits the streets. (And) it's going to take a lot of city dollars," he said.

David Ginsburg, president of Downtown Cincinnati Inc., said the plan would give Cincinnati a "best-in-class" approach to panhandling. The city already has a public information campaign encouraging downtown visitors to give to homeless-related charities instead of panhandlers, and an ordinance that forbids aggressive panhandling.

But the 2002 ordinance, while tough on paper, has been difficult to enforce on the streets. Most cases require a complaining witness to come to court, and municipal court judges have been historically lenient on panhandlers.

The new registration ordinance would make it easier for police to make arrests. Problem panhandlers are unlikely to get a license or will have them revoked, giving police just cause to arrest them for the equivalent of driving without a license. And in identifying who the panhandlers are, the city hopes to gain more information about the nature of the problem.

"The common ground that everyone agrees on is that it's the aggressive panhandling that's the problem, and contributes to people's perception that downtown is unsafe," Ginsburg said. "You have to make a distinction between homeless people and panhandlers. They're not always one in the same."

Ginsburg said the social worker, who will work for Downtown Cincinnati, would "quarterback" the efforts of the police and the organization's downtown ambassadors. The focus would be "after hours" to help panhandlers when the downtown office crowd has gone home.

The Law and Public Safety Committee will hold a public hearing on the ordinance May 12 at 7 p.m. at City Hall. Crowley and DeWine said homeless groups and downtown business owners had a role in writing the new legislation, and the double-barreled approach has reached consensus among liberals and conservatives alike. "I'll say to Pat's credit, he's been very open to this idea," Crowley said. "I think he's beginning to show signs of being a real humane person."


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