A controversial anti-panhandling ordinance is expected to be made less restrictive this month in deference to its opponents, but those opponents say the bill should be scrapped altogether.
The panhandling bill was put on the back burner almost three weeks ago when the City Council, instead of voting on it, sent it back to committee. Watching in the audience were several dozen people, some homeless, some homeless advocates, ready to erupt in jeers for the vote that didn't happen.
Here's what did happen and what's planned for the panhandling bill's return in December: Instead of prohibiting panhandling anywhere money changes hands, it would only prohibit it within 10 feet of outdoor dining.
"The amendments consider the narrowing of the geography of that," says Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector, the bill's sponsor.
Spector originally conceived the bill as a prohibition on median-strip panhandling. "I almost hit one myself," she says. "He was in my blind spot-they come out into traffic. We need enforcement."
But the city's law department panned that bill. "We already prohibit people approaching traffic and begging," says David Rocah, a senior staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland: "Though it's honored in the breach more than in practice. Our testimony was, you can't have it on the books but only enforce it against unfavored groups like homeless people."
The Downtown Partnership then stepped in with an amendment: The bill would expand to ban panhandling near ATMs, parking meters, and outdoor dining. "The law department, correctly, in my opinion, said those proposals were unconstitutional," Rocah says.
Before the Downtown Partnership's ideas were voted on, a new amendment was drawn up. The new bill proposed that panhandling be prohibited not only in the median strip but anywhere money changed hands. It effectively banned panhandling anywhere downtown or on any street with a parking meter. In committee Bill Henry, the 4th District councilman, tried to limit the prohibition to outdoor settings. That got voted down.
The super-restrictive bill proceeded to the full City Council, accompanied by a raft of angry advocates for the homeless. One man, Tony Simmons, got thrown out of the Nov. 4 council meeting after vigorously exercising his free speech rights during the meeting. The bill was put off until the Nov. 18 council meeting, then sent back to the Judiciary and Legislative Investigations Committee to be amended yet again.
The 1st District Councilman James Kraft chairs that committee. He and his staff did not return calls asking about the bill, but Henry says he saw a draft of the amendments. "My last understanding was they were willing to drop the parking kiosks and parking meters entirely and have it just be within 10 feet of the outdoor dining," he says. "I thought it was going to be introduced on the floor."
Spector says she could have offered the amendment from the floor, "but that didn't get credit to the advocates who said that [the amendment] would be more palatable."
"We hope that if we do that, the advocates will take a look at it and not be opposed to it," she says.
While Spector says homeless advocates suggested the amendments, Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership, says it was his organization.
"Since the Downtown Partnership initiated this part of discussion, we decided to listen to the critics and pull it back," Fowler, who also sits on the board of Health Care for the Homeless and Baltimore Homeless Services, says. Asked how homeless advocates greeted the proposed changes, he said, "all their reaction was to the broader bill."
That was news to homeless advocates.
"They want to keep it unchallengeable by ACLU," says Rachel Kutler of Housing Our Neighbors, a nonprofit which staged a "sleep-out" on Nov. 23-24 to raise consciousness about the fact that thousands in Baltimore are still without housing.
"We're going to oppose any amendment," she says. "There's already an aggressive panhandling bill on the books. It would be duplicative. Any added amendment is still going to increase arrests for people who are poor."
Adam Schnieder, community relations coordinator for Health Care for the Homeless, says the proposed amendment won't help: "Whether it's 10 feet from outdoor dining or 10 feet from whatever, that's not going to get to the central problem, which is that people are very, very poor."