City Assembly may tighten its panhandling regulations

Posted: Friday, August 03, 2007

Panhandling has been getting tougher in Juneau, says Daniel Bennett, who frequently solicits money from people downtown.

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"I've been getting such a hard time about panhandling lately," he said.

But it may get even tougher.

The Juneau Assembly will consider adopting a new "aggressive panhandling" ordinance at its regular meeting at 7 p.m. Monday at City Hall.

City Manager Rod Swope said panhandling, the act of soliciting money from strangers, has increasingly become a problem downtown and around the community.

"There have been concerns and even complaints by a lot of the business community," he said.

If the ordinance is adopted, it would ban panhandling at a bus stop, in a public vehicle or facility, in a car parked or stopped on a public street or alley, in a sidewalk cafe, within 20 feet of an automatic teller machine or entrance to a bank, and within 10 feet of any entrance to a building or crosswalk.

In those locations, it also would be unlawful to seek donations for music or other performances, or for an item of little or no monetary value. Panhandling also would be banned between sunset and sunrise. Touching the solicited person without consent, using profane or abusive language, and panhandling in groups would be prohibited.

Violators would be fined $75 for each offense.

The proposed ordinance would replace the panhandling law now on the books, City Attorney John Hartle said.

"The existing ordinance simply says panhandling is prohibited, and that's unconstitutional," he said.

Many cities around the nation have changed their laws because they were deemed unconstitutional, resulting in "a new generation of aggressive panhandling ordinances," he said.

"It's a free speech issue," he said. "If someone is standing on a sidewalk, they can say almost anything they want to, including 'hey buddy can you spare a dime?' The old ordinance made it a crime to ask for money."

The proposed ordinance is modeled after those that have been used in other cities and have withstood court challenges, Hartle said.

"It prohibits panhandling at certain times, places and in certain manners," Hartle said.

Dan Austin, general manager of St. Vincent de Paul, said there are other alternatives that would address the issue without penalizing those in need of help.

"We need to be more proactive to understanding the issue behind panhandling rather than just taking a punitive approach," he said. "And the issue is poverty and illness. And we don't do a very good job in this society of taking care of the people who need it the most."

Austin cited an approach some cities have taken that allows citizens to purchase coupons for essential items that can be given to panhandlers in lieu of money.

"We need to understand the root of the problems, not just react to the symptoms of the problem," he said.

Bennett, the panhandler, said he receives disability payments that go toward his rent and food. That, however, is not enough to get by on, he said.

"My whole premise is not to (ask for) spare change for a bottle of whiskey, but to wake people up so they won't be so hardhearted to those who are down on their luck," he said.

Ann House, board president of the Downtown Business Association, said panhandlers have been hindering the traffic flow of pedestrians and vehicles in the downtown area, resulting in disruption of business.

"We've been trying to get some kind of ordinance on this for at least five years," she said.

Although the problem seems to be more prevalent during the summer when throngs of tourists fill the streets, panhandling is a hindrance to locals as well, House said.

"It's gotten worse in the past few years," she said.

Swope said the city began implementing its seasonal police reserve program last weekend, bringing back retired Juneau Police Department officers to help patrol downtown. The program is funded with marine passenger fees, he said.

"Hopefully that will help and with the addition of a little stronger panhandling ordinance, maybe with the combination of the two, we can do a little better job downtown," Swope said.

If the Assembly votes in favor of the ordinance on Monday, it will go into effect 30 days from its adoption. Public testimony will be taken on the ordinance.

"God says, 'Ask and it will be given,'" Bennett said. "Man says, 'Ask and get arrested.' Who would you listen to?"

• Photographer Suzy Lafferty contributed to this report. Contact Eric Morrison at 523-2269 or

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