Thursday, August 28, 2008

Panhandling in the Ward

City Journal’s Steve Malanga has a great article about a new wave of panhandlers in cities across the U.S. He remembers the famous crackdown in the early 1990s by Mayor Rudi Guiliani and Police Commissioner William Bratton when New York got tough with the squeegee men and other beggars. The squeegee men would swarm cars, particularly on exit ramps of highways and stoplights, in order to clean your windows without asking, and then expect payment in return. If you refused, they either blocked traffic or keyed your car.

While many cities made similar reforms, many did not, and the problem now seems to be on the rise again. Malanga notes that the panhandlers are now using technology to improve their “skills,” leading to more and more professionalism. For instance, NeedCom—a PBS website (federally subsidized, no less)—even provides market research for panhandlers.

This got me thinking. Does D.C. have a law, and if so, is it enforced? Panhandling may not be a problem in other parts of the city, but it does seem to more prevalent in Ward 7. I get approached at the Exxon station (routinely), the metro, and even on my own property.

In fact, it does—the Panhandling Control Act of 1993 (DC Code §22-2301-2306). Section 2302 states that:

(a) No person may ask, beg, or solicit alms, including money and other things of value, in an aggressive manner in any place open to the general public, including sidewalks, streets, alleys, driveways, parking lots, parks, plazas, buildings, doorways and entrances to buildings, and gasoline service stations, and the grounds enclosing buildings. [emphasis added]

(b) No person may ask, beg, or solicit alms in any public transportation vehicle; or at any bus, train, or subway station or stop.

(c) No person may ask, beg, or solicit alms within 10 feet of any automatic teller machine (ATM).

(d) No person may ask, beg, or solicit alms from any operator or occupant of a motor vehicle that is in traffic on a public street.

(e) No person may ask, beg, or solicit alms from any operator or occupant of a motor vehicle on a public street in exchange for blocking, occupying, or reserving a public parking space, or directing the operator or occupant to a public parking space.

(f) No person may ask, beg, or solicit alms in exchange for cleaning motor vehicle windows while the vehicle is in traffic on a public street.

(g) No person may ask, beg, or solicit alms in exchange for protecting, watching, washing, cleaning, repairing, or painting a motor vehicle or bicycle while it is parked on a public street.

(h) No person may ask, beg, or solicit alms on private property or residential property, without permission from the owner or occupant.

The law basically allows non-aggressive panhandler as a general rule, and then sets forth where it is not allowed (near ATMs, at Metro stations, on buses, private property, etc.) at all. “Aggressive” panhandling is defined as begging in a way that would cause a reasonable person to fear bodily harm, any touching while begging, and importantly, “continuously asking…after the person has made a negative response.” So once you say no to a panhandler, any further asking enters the zone of illegality.

Is the law being enforced in Ward 7? I doubt it, as far as arrests are concerned. I have seen some police officers on Segways along Benning Road and East Capitol Street, which is sort of a modern day cop on a beat and serves as a deterrent. But I think a few more arrests would do the area good. The law allows that in place of a $300 fine (or 90 days in jail) someone convicted can provide community service. Ward 7 has a lot of trash that needs picking up.

And the law may need to be strengthened. Malanga points to a number of promising examples in other cities that are creative, effective, and yet still allow a place for minimal begging.

Orlando allows begging only in “panhandling zones,” demarcated by blue boxes painted on the sidewalks in several locations. A more common response has been to educate the public about panhandling and to offer alternative ways to help those who really need it. The Nashville Downtown Partnership, for instance, has launched a publicity campaign, “Please Help, Don’t Give,” which explains through posters that money given to panhandlers often supports drug and alcohol addictions. The partnership asks people to donate instead to organizations that provide local services.

Denver’s anti-panhandling initiative seems particularly promising. The city has turned 86 old, unused parking meters into donation boxes and placed them around downtown. The meters allow people to give directly on the street, where they’re likely to encounter panhandlers, assuring donors that their money will go to programs to assist the truly needy.

An updated D.C. law would send a powerful signal to Ward 7 and other areas with struggling mom-and-pop shops that are most susceptible to lost economic activity from consumers seeking to avoid panhandlers. It might even cause them to take the security plexiglass down with a reasonable expectation of being more secure, which of course would make all of us feel better about our area. We might even take the bars off our windows.

Excessive panhandling may not seem like that big of deal when there are so many more high-profile issues dominating our newspapers every day (shootings, drugs, poverty, and failing schools to name a few), but a society ignores such problems at its own peril. History screams reminders that "broken windows" need to be repaired.

No comments: