Archive for Monday, February 20, 2012

Sidewalk stand

The city’s sidewalk ordinance is a weak tool to combat panhandling in downtown Lawrence.

February 20, 2012


Lawrence City Hall leaders are heading off to court to try to prove the constitutionality of a city ordinance that regulates the manner in which people can walk, lie, stand or sit on a public sidewalk.

It is a lawsuit the city may win, but city leaders should recognize it will not produce a victory in their efforts to control panhandling in downtown Lawrence.

City commissioners approved this sidewalk ordinance, which makes it illegal to obstruct traffic on a sidewalk, in 2005. It was approved largely as a way to give the city more leverage over panhandlers who had created significant concerns among downtown merchants and visitors.

Last week, a municipal court judge ruled the ordinance unconstitutional after it was challenged by Robert Gilmore, who goes by the name Simon. He isn’t really a panhandler, but he frequently sits on city sidewalks with socks on his hands. His family has said he suffers from mental illness.

The city is entitled to appeal the ruling to Douglas County District Court, and city attorneys have said they’ll do that. If the city believes the constitution is on its side, there is no harm in appealing the ruling.

In the grand scheme of things, however, this sidewalk ordinance isn’t much of a weapon in the panhandling battle. It may occasionally come in handy, but it would be naive to think it will have much impact on the city’s ability to reduce panhandling. City leaders have said as much over the years.

There seems to be two major actions the city can take to make panhandling less of an issue in downtown. One is to increase police foot patrols in the area. Many panhandlers simply don’t like the police and likely don’t want to share space with them. A greater police presence will make it more likely the police can respond in a timely manner when a panhandler begins acting aggressively or being otherwise inappropriate. A greater police presence will require more city money, but maintaining our downtown is important.

The second action is more complicated but ultimately may be more effective. The city must work to educate residents that every time they give to a panhandler, they are encouraging more panhandling. The city is in a position to create and manage an education campaign about the negative consequences of supporting panhandlers. Such an effort may require some signs, some advertising and other forms of public outreach. If panhandling is no longer profitable, it slowly will fade away.

Ultimately, victory in the panhandling battle will come when kindhearted visitors to downtown Lawrence understand that a quarter here or a dollar there doesn’t do much to help an individual in need. There are many social service agencies, churches or other organizations that can put that money to much better use in helping the poor, homeless and mentally ill.

The city should spend twice as much time spreading that message as it does trying to create and defend little-used laws.


cato_the_elder 5 years, 10 months ago

"The city must work to educate residents that every time they give to a panhandler, they are encouraging more panhandling."

Truer words were never spoken.

tir 5 years, 10 months ago

Downtown isn't the only place where panhandlers are a problem. I have been approached by panhandlers in South Park, on Mass Street near 19th, and in the Kohls parking lot on south Iowa. The sidewalk ordinance is pretty useless, and any law that forbids panhandlers from exercising their rights to free speech by asking you for money is deemed unconstitutional. I exercise my right to free speech by saying NO, but that doesn't seem to deter them from asking me for money the next time I cross paths with them. Honestly, I don't know what the city can do about it.

Scott Drummond 5 years, 10 months ago

A much more serious issue than the occassional panhandler is the sidewalk obstruction that is inflicted by businesses upto and down Mass.

headdoctor 5 years, 10 months ago

Of course it is a week tool. Any law against several forms of vagrancy has quite a record of being struck down by the US Supreme Court. The court has been very active in ruling against vagrancy laws since at least the 1890's and those various rulings even cover some types of solicitation. I am pretty sure this is one that Lawrence will not get away with even if they try their usual "Home Rule" trick.

Oldsoul 5 years, 10 months ago

Please make street harassment illegal too. It's only fair. Too bad most Kansans have been ignorantly raised to be busybodies who aggressively get up in the faces of those they do not know in public. I'm surprised given the liberal rhetoric so popular in Lawrence that more people aren't politically aware about the unequal relations that result from this sort of backward training. Plus, it's unhealthy and a public health issue because it makes walking alone unpopular and unsafe. Too often I'm quaking in my socks that people are going to violate my boundaries , yet people are completely blind to the signs I do want to be messed with. They are not for me . I don't want to talk to them or wish their presumptuous assistance( which is actually a blatant harm--they are ignorant predators). Thinking people are not going to want to relate to others on this level. It creates enemies not friends.Whatever the intentions, it frightens people, and it's often insulting and discriminatory.

Kendall Simmons 5 years, 10 months ago

You've written similar posts before. But, like it or not, your own personal space issues in public spaces are simply not justification for making more laws.

If you don't want people kindheartedly (and, yes, they are being kindhearted) ask if you're lost or need some assistance...then you might want to consider trying not to look lost or in need of assistance.

If you're worried about your personal space on a public sidewalk, then you might want to consider not walking on that public sidewalk. After all, they're called "public" sidewalks for a reason, and your personal space simply isn't guaranteed to be all that big on them.

The fact is that most thinking people understand that the world does not revolve around them, nor is it ever going to be required to. That they need to look to themselves first for change before trying to force everyone else to change. And that, if they refuse to make any changes themselves...well, they have no one but themselves to blame when the results don't change, either.

Paul R Getto 5 years, 10 months ago

It's amazing how scared some people are to leave the house and walk downtown. Lawrence needs to save its money on this one as it will go down the legal rathole. As headdoctor pointed out, this is well-established law. If someone asks for money, tell them 'no.' If they get aggressive and scare you, call the police. Trying to legislate an entire 'class' of people and to control their behaviors is pretty pointless.

Kendall Simmons 5 years, 10 months ago

The editorial says “…a quarter here or a dollar there doesn’t do much to help an individual in need. There are many social service agencies, churches or other organizations that can put that money to much better use in helping the poor, homeless and mentally ill.”

Actually, that’s a pointless claim. People don’t take the money they “save” and donate it to these organizations. So that quarter or dollar “donation” simply becomes a zero donation.

It's so darned easy to say "Giving money to the homeless is like trying to treat the symptom of a disease when in actual fact you need to tackle the cause".

But what if that homeless person simply wants to buy some minutes on his $10 prepaid cellphone...which he bought because it was the only way his case manager, his therapist, the workforce center can get hold of him? Or maybe he needs a bus pass? Like it or not, there are only so many free bus passes made available.

I ignore aggressive panhandlers (or offer to take them to their vehicle so we can put gas in offer that never gets taken up :-)

But the fact is that we do have Lawrence "locals" who simply sit on Mass with a sign and a box or can. Some of them are consumers at RAHN, so I know that they aren't all "lazy good-for-nothings", that they truly don't all '"want"' to be homeless, and they don't make a lot of money panhandling. Plus I also know there are NOT sufficient services available for folks in genuine need. (Heck for a while, even the Lawrence Section 8 waiting list...the waiting list, mind you...was closed, as was the one in Topeka...which just opened last Monday!)

Ultimately, though, when I give money to panhandlers, it's not a matter of how much they need the's how much I need it. I don't over-think it...once I give the money, it's theirs, and they can spend it on any darned thing they want. But I’d rather take the chance of giving something to someone who doesn’t need it than withholding it from someone who does.

Paul R Getto 5 years, 10 months ago

+1. The great ESSENE teacher (our guy), and many other religious leaders would agree with you about alms for the poor. People should do as they choose when giving or not giving.

Hudson Luce 5 years, 9 months ago

I generally avoid giving them money, but if they ask for food, on occasion I've asked them to come have lunch with me, and a couple people I've taken food shopping. For others, if they ask me for money for food before I go into a restaurant, I save food from the meal (like dinner rolls and butter, or tortilla chips and salsa) and give it to them when I come out.

somedude20 5 years, 9 months ago

Man, if they pinch ole Simon for blocking the way, then they sure as heck better go after the fatties that like to stop dead in the middle of the sidewalk to either communicate with another fatty (burger burger pizza pizza) or size up where they want to eat next (yummy ice cream wild wing

Paul R Getto 5 years, 9 months ago

+1. I agree, and it's a long walk around them to the other side. Just like trucks on the highways, we need to start charging people by the pound for life insurance, health insurance, car insurance and for the general wear and tear they put on society, not to mention the "all you can eat buffets." These seem to be Americans' favorite four words.

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