Thursday, May 22, 2003

It's law: Panhandlers must register with city

By Gregory Korte
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Starting next month, you'll need a license if you want to panhandle in Cincinnati.

City Council reversed itself on the issue Wednesday, passing an ordinance that would require street beggars to register with the Police Department.

Gone from the proposal is a plan to spend $50,000 in tax money for a social worker to help panhandlers stop panhandling. Instead, Downtown Cincinnati Inc. will pay for the social service program through assessments to downtown property owners.

Shifting those costs won the support of Councilman Chris Monzel, who voted against the registration scheme last week. The revised ordinance passed 5-3.

The ordinance is an attempt to rein in panhandlers, whose speech is constitutionally protected but whose aggressive tactics have scared away visitors to the city's downtown, according to downtown merchants.

Panhandlers would be required to obtain a free photo identification card from a health clinic. Panhandlers who break the law can have their registration revoked; after that, police can arrest panhandlers for begging without a license even if they haven't otherwise broken the law.

"If you can't ban it, the next best thing is to regulate it out of existence," said Councilman Pat DeWine, the main sponsor of the ordinance.

Critics of the plan remain convinced that licensing panhandlers could backfire and encourage more of them.

"I have a feeling that this could go down, ultimately, as one of the dumbest ideas ever to come out of City Council," said Councilman John Cranley. "The only people who would get a license are people who want to be in the permanent business of begging for money. There's no better evidence that City Council has lost touch with common sense."

Cranley said the ordinance would create a new "bureaucracy for begging." Joining him in voting against the ordinance were Y. Laketa Cole and Alicia Reece.

The revised ordinance also added a "sunset" provision, meaning that City Council would have to reauthorize the registration scheme after a year, so the city can evaluate how it's working.

"This proposal has been subjected to ridicule and derided as coddling, ineffective and wasteful; but I haven't seen anything come forward that's any better," said co-sponsor David Crowley.

Councilman James R. Tarbell weighed in: "To me, it's one of those things that nobody likes it, so it must be all right."

The Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless withdrew its support for the plan Wednesday, saying City Council seemed to be abandoning the "compassionate approach" that came with the $50,000 in city spending on a social service program for panhandlers.

"Ultimately, no one knows who is panhandling or why, but we do know this: Panhandlers are men, women and children whose needs are not being met," said Georgine Getty, director of the homeless coalition.


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