Some say panhandling is hurting downtown Lawrence businesses; city may study issue
photo by: Nick Krug
City leaders could soon be considering whether panhandling is becoming a problem downtown and whether the city should do anything about it.
At the Lawrence City Commission meeting Tuesday, Downtown Lawrence Inc. Executive Director Sally Zogry asked the city to create a stricter ordinance to restrict panhandling downtown. Zogry said that in the last several years, she’s heard from downtown business owners and visitors that an increasing number of transients and aggressive panhandlers are negatively affecting the downtown.
“(Visitors) are solicited regularly by panhandlers, sometimes multiple times in a one-block stretch,” Zogry said. “I myself am witness to a multitude of inappropriate and aggressive behaviors each day among the individuals and groups that are panhandling. These include public drunkenness and intoxication, verbal and physical fights, and threatening behavior.”
Zogry said that downtown is important to the city’s economic viability because of sales and property tax collections and employment. She added that there are a number of people downtown everyday panhandling who have been doing so for many years and are well aware of the services that the community has to help those in need.
Currently, the city does not ban people from asking for money or soliciting donations by holding a sign or container. City ordinance does ban “aggressive panhandling,” making it illegal for a panhandler to follow, touch or block the path of someone when asking for money, repeatedly ask after someone refuses, or make any threatening statement or gesture. In 2008, the city discussed banning all forms of panhandling but ultimately did not because of concerns that the city could be sued for violating freedom of expression rights in the First Amendment.
Mathew Faulk, team leader of Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center’s homeless outreach program, told the commission that the social services available are insufficient to meet the needs of people experiencing homelessness. Faulk asked the city not to punish people for being poor or having mental health or substance abuse issues. He said punitive measures are not an effective way to deal with homelessness, and would only create further fallout and exacerbate existing jail capacity issues.
“I’m not discounting the problems that (Zogry) mentioned,” Faulk said. “But as we’re thinking about this issue moving forward, as a community we need to think about what actually is effective and what is going to really lead to a concerted effort to address this problem.”
Several downtown businesses agreed that the number of homeless people and panhandlers downtown is causing problems. Some said customers have said they were afraid to come downtown or would not be returning downtown.
Sunflower Outdoor & Bike Shop owner Dan Hughes said that the perception among customers is that “things have slid in downtown Lawrence.” Hughes said that while that may not be true, the perception is there and he thinks the homelessness and vagrancy issue downtown has gotten worse.
“The perception is that downtown is a place where you are going to be harassed, find empty storefronts and not be a pleasant place to shop, especially when cast against the obvious other option, which is to stay at home and shop online in your pajamas,” Hughes said. “I’m not really exactly sure what the solution is, but it’s obvious to me, having been downtown for 30 years, that this is about as bad as it’s ever been.”
Emily Peterson, co-owner at Merchants Pub and Plate, which has patio seating, said that recently customers have had aggressive sentiments yelled at them or have been harassed if they don’t respond. Peterson said the restaurant has filed reports with police in the past, but that the process sometimes takes 45 minutes to an hour and takes managers away for their regular duties. She said she realizes it’s a complex issue, but it needs to be addressed.
“We have sympathy and support for people who are struggling socially in our community, economically in our community, and we want to help in any way that we can,” Peterson said. “We have to figure out a way to balance those things so that we can all be prosperous and all be comfortable in our environment.”
Not all the downtown business owners agreed that homelessness and panhandling downtown required action. Meredith Moore, co-owner of the downtown art shop Wonder Fair, said she was curious whether there is any data to show that downtown panhandling has increased. Moore said Wonder Fair would be against changes that would make loitering illegal or increase downtown policing, as she didn’t think it would ensure downtown safety.
“Creating additional touch points for police for minor infractions might not achieve this, both because it would deter our police resources from the community at large and because it may not have its desired effect,” Moore said.
The comments were made during general public comment, and as is the practice, the commission did not discuss the issue. Mayor Stuart Boley asked that city management look into the issue. When the commission makes such requests of city staff, the issue is typically researched and brought back to the commission for discussion.