Ordinance would forbid median-strip panhandling

PORTLAND – Homeless advocates are opposing a proposed ordinance that would prevent panhandlers from standing on median strips in the city.

The proposal — scheduled to go before the City Council today — would make homeless people less visible but won’t address the issues that cause them to live on the street, said Betsy Whitman, a community organizer with Homeless Voices for Justice.

Whitman said the proposed ban is aimed at appeasing motorists who simply don’t want to see homeless people while commuting.

"It’s uncomfortable to see the homeless in our community," she said. "The way to address that isn’t to make the homeless invisible, but to provide services and change the systems that are creating homelessness."

Members of Homeless Voices For Justice and staffers from the Preble Street Resource Center plan to speak out against the ordinance at the City Council meeting.

Proponents say that standing on median strips poses a safety hazard for panhandlers, who could slip off a curb and fall into traffic, or get struck by a car passing too close.

The proposal does not prevent people from panhandling in the city but only requires that they move to the sidewalk for their own safety, said City Councilor Ed Suslovic, who chairs the Council’s Public Safety, Health and Human Services Committee and joined with councilors John Coyne and David Marshall in endorsing the proposal in a 3-0 vote last month.

Suslovic said the proposal — which was requested by the Police Department — is aimed at anyone who stands around on a median, not just panhandlers.

"All the ordinance would do is say they can’t hang out in the middle of the road," he said. "Nothing prevents them from standing on the sidewalk, which is much safer than what they are currently doing."

Portland Police Chief Mike Sauschuck said the two most popular areas for panhandling are at the intersections of Marginal Way and Franklin Street, and Congress and St. John streets.

He said police regularly get calls from motorists who are concerned about the safety of people standing in median strips.

He said he has seen panhandlers stumbling around apparently intoxicated, walking in the travel lanes between cars and flagging down cars. He said the panhandlers also pose a hazard to motorists who must brake or swerve to avoid hitting them.

"We think that standing in the middle of the street is a public safety concern for everybody," he said.

One consequence of the proposed ban is that panhandlers would take in less money, because they can make more on the median than on a sidewalk, said Kelly Noble, 46, who panhandles at the intersection of Park Avenue and St. John Street. She panhandles for an hour or two during the morning and again during the evening commutes. She said some panhandlers get into fights to determine who gets to stand in the medians during the prime commuting hours.

"I am not proud of what I do," she said. "I want a job. I wouldn’t be here if I had a job."

Her last job was in January, when she was a temporary worker at Barber Foods, a food packaging company that has laid off more than 200 workers over the past year.

Todd Valdes, who gave Noble $2, said he has mixed feelings about the proposed ordinance. He said he understands why officials would be concerned about safety.

But Valdes, who is visiting Maine from Texas, said he sees fewer panhandlers in Texas because the oil boom has produced a surplus of jobs. He said the Maine economy seems more depressed.

"Times are hard. People do what they can," he said. "I am not in favor of moving people around and corralling them into any particular place."

Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at