PORTLAND, Maine – The City Council voted 6-3 against an ordinance banning people from standing on median strips except as necessary to cross the street, a ban that homeless advocates say unfairly targeted homeless people who panhandle on median strips throughout Portland.
City Councilor Ed Suslovic said the ordinance was first and foremost one concerned with public safety.
"If we do not act to ensure their safety, shame on us," Suslovic said. "The word ‘panhandling’ appears nowhere. It’s not specific to any sort of activity in the medians."
Police Chief Mike Sauschuck did not have statistics on accidents caused by pedestrians using median strips but said he doesn’t want to wait for accidents to happen.
"I don’t want to work reactively but proactively," Sauschuck said.
After public comments, the ordinance met resistance from members of the City Council. After a presentation by Sauschuck and a statement of support from Suslovic, Councilors John Anton, Nick Mavodones, Jill Duson and Cheryl Leeman rose one by one to speak their opposition to the law.
"I don’t think it addresses the underlying issues of panhandling and substance abuse," said Anton.
Councilor John Coyne stood with Suslovic in support of the ordinance, describing it as an important public safety issue.
"This is about distracted drivers," Coyne said.
Zachary Heiden, legal director for the ACLU of Maine, urged the City Council to reject the ordinance.
"I’ve talked to people who had to do that in their lives, and none of them wanted to be in that position," Heiden said. "This ordinance is going to put a significant burden on them, on their ability to do that. Even if it’s not the intent, this will be enforced disproportionately on people who are homeless."
Opponents of the ordinance rejected the assertion that the ordinance wouldn’t target the homeless.
"This is nothing more than the criminalization of the homeless," said Thomas Ptacek, a representative of the homeless advocacy group Homeless Voices for Justice. "This ordinance only makes people’s lives that much more difficult."
Ptacek also questioned how people who rely on panhandling income could pay fines if punished for violating any ban on using the medians.
Resident Tim MacNamera said he reluctantly supports the ordinance after seeing dangerous behavior on the median at the intersection of St. John and Congress streets near his home.
"It breaks my heart to have to speak in front of a group to limit the behavior of these poor people who are down there," MacNamera said. "To get them out of traffic and to somewhere where they can get help is really what needs to be done."