PORTLAND – An ordinance that would have corralled panhandling, but billed as a public safety measure, spurred a debate about poverty and homelessness before being defeated Monday night by the City Council.
"Simply put this is a pedestrian safety ordinance brought by request of the police," Councilor Ed Suslovic, chairman of the Public Safety, Health, and Human Services Committee, said in his introduction of the proposed rule, an amendment to the city code that would have banned pedestrians from road medians unless they were crossing the street.
The proposal, which was defeated 6-3 with Suslovic, Councilor John Coyne, and Mayor Michael Brennan in the minority, would have forced people using signs to ask for money at intersections to stand on the sidewalk, but would not have banned panhandling outright.
"Panhandling appears nowhere in the ordinance," Suslovic said.
"For today what I’m trying to do is provide a public safety answer to a tragedy that is waiting to happen," he said, after Police Chief Michael Sauschuck described his experience as a beat officer responding to daily calls of intoxicated people in medians who were in danger of getting hit by cars.
Only two residents urged the council to adopt the amendment, which was forwarded by a 3-0 vote of the Public Safety Committee. But a series of speakers opposed to the measure were in attendance. Many were formerly homeless; a few said they had panhandled in the past.
Steve Huston, who said he has been homeless and panhandled in the past, said it is safer to panhandle from the median than from the sidewalk, which requires solicitors to walk into traffic more often.
Most of the opposition speakers regarded the rule as a thinly veiled attempt to hide the uncomfortable realities of homelessness and poverty from a squeamish public.
"It’s hard to see homelessness for what it is: hard," said Thomas Ptacek, a U.S. Navy veteran who was homeless in Portland for more than a year and now volunteers as an advocate for Homeless Voices for Justice. "It’s hard for people living on streets," he said, "and it’s hard for people who have to see them."
The proposed rule amounted to criminalizing homelessness, Ptacek added.
"We believe this is a punitive measure" for people in need, said Donna Yellen, director of the Maine Hunger Initiative at Preble Street.
"Homelessness is dangerous," she said, noting that life expectancies for the homeless are 20 years lower than for the general public, and that she had learned of the deaths of two members of the homeless community in the 24 hours before the council meeting.
"We would respectfully submit that there are several more pressing issues" than panhandling, she said.
Other speakers argued that the measure would do little to address the real issues of homelessness, and some addressed potential conflicts with the Constitution’s free-speech clause. The rule as written would have also banned political candidates from standing in medians.
People should be free to express political concerns almost anywhere, including medians in the middle of city streets, said Zachary Heiden, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine.
The public safety concern is not significant enough to take that right away, Heiden said.
Although Sauschuck had argued that the rule barring standing in medians would give police another, broader option to deal with the issue, city attorney Gary Wood said the city has tools in place already to deal with or remove panhandlers who are endangering themselves or others, including rules against public intoxication, aggressive solicitation, and blocking public ways.
Suslovic and Coyne maintained that the concern is primarily about public safety and "not inconsistent with caring for and seeking solutions to homelessness and poverty in Portland." But the council majority disagreed.
Councilor David Marshall, who voted in favor of the amendment at the committee level, but reversed his vote at the council meeting, said the issue was more complex than he thought previously.
Andrew Cullen can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 of firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @ACullenFore.