editorial (2006-39)

Tough Love

Let’s make panhandling obsolete in Knoxville

Tough Love

Anti-panhandling ordinances are all the rage among municipalities where aggressive, in-your-face begging has become a problem in some sectors of their urban centers.

So it has with Knoxville, where restaurant patrons eating within the rails around sidewalk tables downtown are being confronted, right over their soup, by people seeking spare change for a sandwich, a cup of coffee, a bus ride, whatever.

It’s a shame to hear of a 15-year-old schoolgirl being chased down the street by an insistent panhandler, using derogatory language at her refusal to contribute to his cause, but it has happened right here and right recently.

Despite the availability of services to the homeless or jobless or stranded in Knoxville, the incidence of panhandling downtown and the aggressiveness of some of its practitioners has been on the rise in this mild-weather season.

There are people—a relative lot of people in Knoxville—who are willing to lend a hand, or a dollar, to the needy. But even they are put off by the tactics pursued by the most persistent of the panhandlers.

The pages of Metro Puls e have been virtually laden lately with accounts of the plight of the homeless and pleas, such as that issued by Volunteer Ministry Center’s director, Ginny Weatherstone, who advocates “tough love” for those homeless persons who ask for money. Say no, she says, and direct them to a legitimate shelter where help is offered.

And, it is in that sentiment that Bill Lyons, the city’s senior director for policy development, and City Councilman Chris Woodhull have asked the city Law Department to draw up an anti-panhandling ordinance for Knoxville.

We support that effort, and we realize it won’t be easy to come up with an ordinance that will pass muster in both the Council and the courts, despite what Lyons refers to as his “strong” advocacy of a measure to control panhandling.

Other cities that have adopted anti-panhandling laws have had their ordinances challenged in court. Some have been struck down by courts, ruling that the measures violated free-speech rights of the homeless and the poor and that begging is actually expressive conduct protected by the U.S. Constitution. Pleas for help are free expression under those rulings.

Therefore, the wording of the ordinance and its intended effects are everything when such measures are being drafted and considered.

Woodhull, who works with inner-city youth, and who has a special personal interest in the downtown and an abiding sensitivity to the plight of the poor and homeless, says the Memphis ordinance is promising as a model, since it must comply with the laws of this state as well as the Constitution. It’s an odd duck of sorts among such ordinances, in that it requires panhandlers to obtain a city permit that puts the applicant’s identification information, a photo, and the duration of the permit—up to a year but as short as a single day for transients—on file. Panhandling without a permit is a misdemeanor there, but it is a crime that is difficult to enforce. Fining a person who has no money for seeking money from others has a ring of futility to it, as does putting a person who has no home or money in jail for the night.

Of course, the police can hassle a panhandler if that activity is a crime, just as they once hassled street performers who accepted, but did not actively solicit, donations. Passive panhandling, that is leaning against a wall along a sidewalk, not obstructing anyone’s passage, with an open hat or an empty jar on the ground, would not be prohibited under any ordinance that could pass constitutional review by a court.

Woodhull says the key to limiting panhandling and discouraging its more aggressive forms is not passing and enforcing an ordinance, per se, but in lending the legislation creating it a positive aspect. “We want some kind of an educational strategy to be included, not only educating the homeless and the penniless, but also the downtown business community, about alternative assistance programs, telling them where aid can be obtained and helping them to get there, if possible.”

Woodhull says the resurgence of the downtown and the numbers of people who are on its sidewalks these days is one thing that encourages panhandlers. Another, he says, is giving them money, which many people do, at least for the first few times they are hit up. He believes that situation is complicated by the fact that many of the downtown’s newest residents and the visitors who are attracted to new retail, restaurant and entertainment options there are from “a suburban culture.” They may be used to seeing “will work for food” posters in the hands of the needy at interstate exits, but they see those from their cars, where they feel protected. That’s not the case when confronted as pedestrians, as they are on downtown sidewalks, Woodhull says.

It’s along those sidewalks, he says, where “We want a safe, comfortable environment.” We couldn’t agree more. So it’s a very encouraging sign that the city is looking into an ordinance that may effectively reduce the element of panhandling that has become so threatening to downtown Knoxville’s ambience.

We hope that the city fathers come up with something that is both constitutional and palatable to those people who are committed to ameliorating the plight of the poor and homeless. And we hope they do it soon.