City Council approves limits on panhandling

Mathew Hulsey, left, holds a sign in City Hall on Wednesday while members of the bluegrass band Old Time Remedy entertain opponents of a panhandling ordinance. A group of more than 20 protesters moved in out of the rain before the city council meeting considering the ban.

Some people thought having an ordinance to outlaw aggressive panhandling was overkill, targeting a group of people who are the most vulnerable.

Others believed the issue of aggressive panhandling is bad for business and the problem is worse than characterized. Still other folks were concerned that limiting panhandling would bring on a lawsuit that the city should not encourage, and instead should focus on the underlying issues of why people are asking strangers for donations.

Even after more than an hour of emotional testimony Wednesday night from a packed crowd that filled council chambers, most of it urging city leaders not to place limits on panhandling, Grand Junction city councilors unanimously decided to enact an ordinance against aggressive panhandling.

Councilor Duncan McArthur clarified in his closing remarks that the ordinance does not outlaw panhandling, but it places restrictions on it that he says are fair to everyone.

“Do (the people who are being asked for money) have a right to say no? I think they do,” he said. “Do people who sit at a sidewalk restaurant with their family and friends have a right not to be approached? I think they do.”

Grand Junction’s ordinance limits how people can go about asking for money. For example, panhandlers cannot ask for donations when it is dark; near a number of private institutions or, for example, automated teller machines; and panhandlers cannot walk onto highways to collect donations.

Also, panhandlers cannot repeatedly ask for money or request funds in an aggressive or obscene way.

Grand Junction Police Chief John Camper said he believed passage of the ordinance wouldn’t result in officers writing a number of tickets, but it would give authorities some “additional tools” for keeping the peace and educating panhandlers about the ordinance.

Harry Weiss, the executive director of Grand Junction’s Downtown Development Authority, said his board members supported the language, as did Julie Mamo of Grand Valley Peace and Justice. Mamo said the ordinance should work to keep all people safe, but she encouraged councilors to revisit the issue in a year. Councilors did not entertain that option.

Councilors passed the ordinance against the recommendation of the American Civil Liberties Union, which stated the ordinance is too broad and could limit free speech of others than the intended aggressive panhandlers.

ACLU of Colorado Legal Director Mark Silverstein did not specify whether the agency would lodge a lawsuit against Grand Junction if councilors passed the ordinance.

“A budget-busting lawsuit is not something that we need at this time,” Eric Niederkruger, a member of the public, told councilors during the meeting.

Council meetings typically don’t attract police officers, but occasionally a couple are stationed at the back of the room. At least six uniformed officers were seen in attendance at Wednesday’s meeting.

A group of about a dozen self-described homeless people and advocates for the homeless spent a few hours in advance of the meeting, protesting with signs and music. As a persistent rain fell, people gathered under the eaves at the entrance to City Hall, sharing plates of food. Some held signs that read, “Asking for help is not a crime,” and “The police will not solve poverty.”

“I’m down here because they’re trying to take away our freedom of speech,” Dennis Rasch, 48, said before the meeting. Rasch said he was homeless and has been panhandling for a year. He flies a sign nearly every day making between $2 and $40 to supplement disability payments. Money from panhandling buys some hot food, fuel for his vehicle and, sometimes, helps pay for a hotel room.

Also a bit out of the norm, some protesters in council chambers were allowed inside with their pets. One woman had a cat and a small dog peeking out of her coat, and a puppy on a leash sleeping on a coat on the floor.


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