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.