License to beg

Share this:
April 11, 2005 // UPDATED 1:53 pm - April 26, 2007
By: Scott Russell
Scott Russell

Minneapolis City Police staff is floating a plan to license panhandlers, the latest move to curtail Downtown street begging.

The free licenses would theoretically allow the city to combat an activity some say is both annoying to pedestrians and hurts Downtown businesses.

Luther Krueger, the 1st Precinct's Civilian Crime-Prevention Specialist, has begun circulating the concept to neighborhood groups and Downtown leaders. The idea is based on a Dayton, Ohio ordinance requiring panhandlers to register with the city and display a photo ID in order to solicit passersby.

The Dayton ordinance has many similarities to an existing Minneapolis ordinance against aggressive solicitation but with key differences. The Dayton ordinance prohibits panhandling "after sunset or before sunrise." The Minneapolis ordinance does not restrict begging by time of day.

Further, Krueger said while Dayton issues the licenses free of charge, the ordinance allows the city to restrict who gets them. If licensed panhandlers have been found guilty of aggressive panhandling or other ordinance violations twice in five years, they lose their license.

"They wouldn't be able to ask for money again - period - no matter how nice they were," Krueger said.

At this point, no one has a Minneapolis-specific proposal, Krueger said.

Police Chief William McManus, Dayton's former chief, said the ordinance worked as intended in Dayton. He said Cincinnati, Dallas and other cities have similar ordinances, and he thinks Minneapolis should follow suit.

"One of the most frequent complaints I hear from merchants and citizens is about aggressive panhandling," he wrote in an e-mail. "The big advantage is it would give police a needed tool to identify and arrest - or at least issue a citation to - panhandlers who fail to display their license, and it would allow citizens to identify panhandlers who get aggressive in any way."

City Councilmember Lisa Goodman (7th Ward) said she spoke to McManus about the idea and told him he needed to talk to neighborhood groups.

"I don't know how I feel," said Goodman, who represents much of Downtown. "I feel the neighborhoods should provide some feedback to help me formulate my opinion."

Begging for a fight?

If other cities' experience is an indicator, Minneapolis can expect controversy if it tries to start licensing panhandlers.

Dayton passed its licensing ordinance in late 2000. Cincinnati followed suit in June 2003 according to news accounts.

Cincinnati Progressive Action, a human rights advocacy group, opposed the panhandling ordinance, according to the Web site for the publication City Beat. (The organization's leaders said large corporations that begged for city subsidies, and politicians asking for contributions, also should have to get the licenses.)

Homeless advocates and the American Civil Liberties Union sued to overturn the ordinance in federal court, said Richard Ganulin, an assistant city solicitor in Cincinnati.

Homeless advocates argue that First Amendment free speech rights protect people who want to stand on the street corner and ask passersby for money, Ganulin said.

The city argues that panhandling is commercial speech, similar to a street corner vendor asking people to spend money on a pair of sunglasses.

Courts are more likely to allow government restrictions on commercial speech than political speech, Ganulin said. Cincinnati has argued panhandling is commercial speech "because it is requesting a transfer of funds, it is not communicating an idea of any kind."

The Ohio ACLU did not return phone calls.

Ganulin said the federal court has not yet ruled on the lawsuit.

The Cincinnati ordinance lists five public interests to justify panhandling licenses - and regulate it as commercial speech. Those public interests include: preventing crime, promoting the safety and convenience of citizens on public streets, and facilitating prosecution of cases of aggressive or improper solicitation.

The Minneapolis track

For a time, Minneapolis had an antibegging ordinance that prohibited people from soliciting money from passersby, even those making polite or nonthreatening requests. Opponents sued on constitutional grounds and, on March 30, 2004, Hennepin County District Court Judge Beryl Nord ruled the city's ordinance was too broad.

The Minneapolis City Council responded in May 2004 by passing a more targeted ordinance, one that specifically banned aggressive panhandling "to protect citizens from the fear and intimidation accompanying certain kinds of solicitation"

The Minneapolis ordinance bans solicitation in specific locations, such as restrooms, bus stops, sidewalk cafs and within 20 feet of a cash machine. It also prohibits solicitation under the influence of alcohol or drugs or requests for money "likely to cause a reasonable person to fear imminent bodily harm"

Advocates for homeless people in Minnesota have been working to decriminalize homelessness; for instance trying to repeal state vagrancy laws. Jim Smith, executive director of Simpson Housing Services in Whittier, said creating panhandling licenses seems like a step in the wrong direction.

"There are other ways, much more creative and much more effective and much more humane to deal with the problem," he said.

One possibility, suggested by the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless, is increasing the number of homeless outreach workers to help homeless people address their long-term needs.

Krueger said he could not agree more. He expressed frustration that he never sees any homeless outreach workers where they're most needed - on the streets and by the river.

The panhandling license debate should not be another city crackdown, he said. He wants it to be an opportunity to talk about who is responsible to help down-and-out panhandlers get off the streets. "The cops aren't," he said. "We are supposed to uphold the law and maintain order."

One idea Krueger floated: When people apply for a panhandling license, they could also receive information about services at the Salvation Army, House of Charity and other social services.

Cincinnati has taken that approach. As part of the ordinance justification, Council language said individuals applying for licenses would have "a convenient and inviting location to obtain information about available social service providers."

The Cincinnati Health Department administers the program and did not return phone calls.

Officer Barbara Winstead, who works in Cincinnati's Downtown Services Unit, said the city has a homeless outreach social worker who works with panhandlers and tries to help them get off the street.

Cincinnati by the numbers

Winstead said the panhandling license "has not eliminated the situation, but it has curbed it substantially because it does limit their actions."

Lt. Kurt Boyd, a public information officer for the Cincinnati Police, said the city had issued 361 licenses since the ordinance went into effect less than two years ago. That number is inflated because some people registered "to make a statement," he said.

The licenses expire after one year. The city has 90 active licenses, he said. In contrast, it has issued 434 panhandling citations, 194 in the last half of 2003, 211 in 2004 and 29 so far this year.

Violations are punishable by up to 30 days in jail and a maximum $250 fine.

Sgt. Frank Navarre of the Dayton Police said his city's panhandling licenses "have been quite effective," particularly in the entertainment district.

The ordinance eliminated panhandling at night and made it less problematic during the day by making it less intimidating.

If people see the panhandling ID, "they know they are legitimate panhandlers, and they have been registered through the police department," Navarre said. "It leaves them a little more at ease if they want to go ahead and give them something or not give them something."

Dayton has issued 186 licenses since 2001, he said. They have to be renewed each year. Currently, the city has 66 active licenses.

Panhandlers who are new to the community get a warning and told they have to register, Navarre said. They get referred to "The Other Place," a social service referral agency.

The city has made 44 panhandling arrests since the program started, he said. None has been sentenced to any jail time. They have gotten mostly 30-day suspended sentences, with the stipulation that they perform 40 hours of community service. One got recommended for alcohol treatment.

Fines range from $79-$123. Navarre could not say if the fines had been paid or not.

Want to know more

For more information on panhandling ordinances, see the Municipal Code Index at www.municode.com/index.asp.

Click on "Online library." A map of the United States will appear.

Click on either Minnesota or Ohio to search for ordinances in Minneapolis, Dayton or Cincinnati. Select the city of choice.

The Minneapolis code reference is 385.60. The Dayton code reference is 137.14 and following. The Cincinnati code is 910-12.