PORTLAND – The City Council voted Monday night to reject a proposed ordinance that would have prevented panhandlers from standing on city streets’ median strips.
The proposal failed 6-3, with support only from Mayor Michael Brennan and Councilors Ed Suslovic and John Coyne. The council’s Public Safety, Health and Human Services Committee unanimously endorsed the proposal last month.
The ordinance would not have prevented people from panhandling in the city, just required them to move to sidewalks, said Suslovic, who chairs the public safety committee.
The proposal, developed at the request of the Police Department, was aimed at anyone who stands on median strips, not just panhandlers, Suslovic said.
Its proponents said that standing on median strips poses a safety risk for panhandlers, who could slip and fall into traffic.
But 10 residents and advocates for the homeless urged councilors to reject the proposal.
"We’re sending a message to our most vulnerable neighbors that they’re not welcome," said one resident, Matt Brown.
The two most common areas for panhandling are the intersections of Marginal Way and Franklin Street, and Congress and St. John streets, said Police Chief Michael Sauschuck.
He said police regularly get calls from drivers who are concerned about the safety of people standing on median strips. "We think that standing in the middle of the street is a public safety concern for everybody," he said.
Suslovic said he agreed with Sauschuck’s recommendation that the council be proactive by passing the ordinance.
"I don’t want to wait until someone gets run over," Suslovic said. "Shame on us if we don’t act."
Tim McNamara, one of two residents who spoke in favor of the ordinance, said he frequently sees intoxicated people on medians who wander in and out of traffic. He said it made him "sick inside" to take his position in support of the proposal.
"It’s a horrible situation," he said. "To get them out of traffic and to somewhere to get help, that’s what needs to be done."
Zachary Heiden, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, said the organization’s concern with the proposal was that it would limit free speech rights while disproportionately affecting "people without other options who are just trying to make a little money."
Steve Huston, who in the past lived on Portland’s streets, said people who panhandle in the medians are trying to survive in extreme poverty.
"I know from past experience it’s safer to panhandle in the median than to panhandle on the sidewalk and have to go into the street (to cars)," he said. "We’re just trying to make a few bucks to get by."
Councilor David Marshall, a member of the public safety committee, said comments made at Monday’s meeting led him to change his mind and vote against the proposal.
"I can see it’s a much larger issue for us to tackle than I originally perceived," he said.
Staff Writer Gillian Graham can be contacted by phone at 791-6315, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at grahamgillian