Careful lawmaking is needed on panhandling
Stories such as those reported by Amy Hamilton in Sunday’s Daily Sentinel — about aggressive panhandlers accosting pedestrians on Main Street, soliciting diners at sidewalk-seating areas of local restaurants and even demanding money from local business owners — make it clear the city must do more to address panhandlers.
Main Street and other key locations in the city should not be places where citizens and visitors fear to tread because they may be confronted by beggars who won’t take no for an answer.
But, as city officials are well aware, they must proceed cautiously with any ordinance on panhandling because First Amendment protections make it impossible to simply ban panhandling outright.
As the discussion over panhandling moves forward, it’s important to note that the practitioners of this public begging generally aren’t the people normally referred to as homeless — those nearly invisible people who have lost homes and are struggling to improve their lot so that they and their families may once again have a traditional home. They rarely draw attention to themselves.
The folks engaged in panhandling are more likely to be transients, people stopping in Grand Junction on their travels because this city has developed a reputation as an easy place to make some money by holding up a cardboard sign.
Furthermore, as officials with the Grand Junction Police Department noted, increasing numbers of panhandlers are younger and more mobile than has been the case in the past. Some may have alcohol or drug-addiction problems.
As they discuss how best to legally curtail panhandling, city officials have several examples to consider — some successful and some not so much.
In the not-so-successful category is the ban on panhandling Colorado Springs adopted for a 12-block area of its downtown. The city was sued by the ACLU last November, and in March, Colorado Springs rescinded its panhandling ordinance.
More successful, at least so far, is an ordinance adopted last year by Larimer County. That law doesn’t place an outright ban on panhandling, but it restricts it in a number of instances and locations. Panhandling is not allowed after dark or near bank teller machines, schools or bus stops. It is not allowed along roadways or in medians.
Where it is allowed, panhandlers are forbidden from obstructing roads or sidewalks, from asking repeatedly for money once they have been denied, and from soliciting people who are entering businesses, restaurants or parked cars. All these violations are punishable with fines of up to $1,000.
Larimer County’s rules may not be exactly what is needed here, but they seem reasonable enough. Grand Junction should also consider requiring a permit for panhandling, one that is inexpensive but requires a visit to City Hall to obtain.
In any event, city officials deserve credit for seeking a means to curb panhandling.