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Handling the panhandlers

Attempts to stop begging have failed; so what's next?

"Scott" from Texas uses honesty and flattering comments to get people to give money.
"Scott" from Texas uses honesty and flattering comments to get people to give money.
Peter Chudleigh

Cities have long struggled with how to treat panhandlers. The Constitution guarantees the right to free speech, but a city with too many beggars in its core may have a hard time attracting businesses and visitors. People have the right to speak and ask for money, but local governments also need to provide an environment in which people feel safe and secure.

Twenty years ago, then-Mayor Palmer Depaulis killed a plan to outlaw aggressive begging on the streets of Salt Lake City, saying there had to be more positive ways to handle the problem. In the early 1990s, then-Mayor Deedee Corradini joined with downtown businesses to launch an effort to discourage panhandling. Businesses were to post signs in their windows encouraging people to reject the panhandlers and instead give to legitimate charities. Seven years ago, a city councilwoman suggested an ordinance that would ban begging from certain parts of the city and require panhandlers to obtain business licenses — an effort that failed.

And today, panhandlers remain a part of Salt Lake City's core and thorns in the sides of many.

Salt Lake City has a new proposed ordinance to deal with the issue, one that is watered down a bit from an earlier proposal. Rather than outlawing panhandling within 20 feet of outdoor cafés, ATMs, public transit shops, theater lines, food vendors and churches, it would draw the line at 10 feet. Also, an earlier section making it illegal to make a false statement — that you are a disabled veteran or need money for bus fare, for instance — has been removed.

In addition, the proposed ordinance would outlaw aggressive panhandling. To ask for money, then follow the person, touch him or her or make that person feel threatened in any way would be a violation.

Aggressive panhandling always has come dangerously close to the line that separates free speech from robbery. It's the difference between saying "Could you give me some money?" and saying "Give me your money!" Our guess is most reasonable people know where that line lies.

The key question with any panhandling ordinance is whether it can be enforced. Ten feet is a general barrier. Absent a tape measure, it would be hard to summon police and demonstrate that a panhandler had breached it. Aggression can be a matter of personal interpretation. A boisterous panhandler may seem gregarious to some and threatening to others.

If the goal is protect the rights of all, rather than to make life tougher for the poor, this ordinance sounds OK, despite enforcement problems. Panhandlers should abide by the rules of civility we demand of other people.

But begging will always be a part of city life. The bigger question is how to help the downtrodden, the mentally ill, the addicted and the addled. That's tougher than targeting panhandlers.