Proposed Portland ordinance would make panhandling in median strips illegal

PORTLAND, Maine – The city is weighing an ordinance change that would prevent panhandlers – and everyone else – from standing in the median strips.

Panhandlers and advocates for the homeless say they’re unsure about the measure at this point.

In a late addition to the City Council agenda Monday, councilors gave a first reading to new ordinance language that would make median strips legally the same as crosswalks: Pedestrians can pass over them to get from one point to another, but they cannot stop and stand in them.

A second reading and council vote potentially will take place on July 16.

City Councilor Ed Suslovic, chairman of the council’s Public Safety, Health and Human Services Committee, said the ordinance change was approved with a 3-0 vote at the committee level. He said the move simply forces panhandlers – and anyone else who might be inclined to stop in the median strip – to move over to the sidewalks. Having pedestrians in the median strips, he said, is a potential safety hazard for both the pedestrians and passing vehicles.

"Most people would agree the median strips were never designed as places to hang out on," Suslovic said on Tuesday. "This is not an attempt to curtail anybody’s freedom of speech. I’m sensitive to this being perceived as a strike against panhandlers, but it’s not an anti-panhandling ordinance. It’s a pedestrian and vehicular safety ordinance."

Donna Yellen, director of the Maine Hunger Initiative and organizer with Homeless Voices For Justice – both programs under the umbrella of the Portland nonprofit homeless service provider Preble Street – said her group plans to speak with members of the homeless community this week to gauge how they feel about the proposed change.

"If there is a strong feeling about that, we’ll help organize those people to help them testify at the City Council meeting," she said.

Panhandlers in the city only are restricted by ordinance language prohibiting "abusive solicitation," which bars them from following people or making threatening comments or gestures. Simply holding signs near intersections or on the sidewalks requesting money is protected as their constitutional right to free speech.

Kelly Noble, a Portland woman who uses the median strip to ask passing drivers for money, said the new ordinance language regarding the middle-of-the-road stands wouldn’t change much.

Noble, who spoke to the BDN from the median strip on the corner of St. John Street and Park Avenue, said that regardless of what’s on the books, she has been told by police previously that she’s illegally obstructing a public way or jaywalking.

She said police have told her they had been called by passers-by who worry panhandlers in the median strips could cause a traffic accident.

"I know people who have been doing panhandling for 20 years, all over the country," she said. "It doesn’t matter if it’s a city ordinance or not, they’re still going to do it. … A lot of people are one paycheck away from what I’m doing right now."