Almost every morning at 7 a.m., Leigh Lockhart, owner of The Main Squeeze on Ninth Street, finds the same man passed out in a dirty baseball cap in front of her café.
The problem is more than people sleeping on benches.
“These guys have gotten really abusive,” Lockhart said. “They not only panhandle, but they yell at people. I’ve seen parents grab their kids close as they walk by because the parents are afraid.”
Lockhart took action by submitting to the City Council a petition with the signatures of 30 downtown business owners. The petition asked for a panhandling ordinance that would give police more power to resolve the situation when people consistently harass others in front of their businesses.
Aggressive panhandling, defined as an individual touching, grabbing, blocking or verbally abusing another while soliciting money, is illegal in Columbia, but Lockhart said she doesn’t think that ordinance is enough. Panhandlers are constantly bothering people and driving away customers, she said.
“We’re in a very competitive market, and as merchants we’re looking at what affects our business,” she said.
Because the Columbia Mall and the shopping centers in the southern part of town typically don’t have severe panhandling problems, Lockhart said downtown is at a disadvantage.
Shannon Mercer, manager of Quinton’s Bar and Deli on Ninth Street, said the bar calls the police 50 to 100 times a year because of people outside bothering customers.
“When you have someone sitting out front harassing everyone that walks by, it makes people uncomfortable coming downtown,” Mercer said.
On Labor Day Weekend, 12 panhandlers were in front of the bar, he said. A few weeks later, paramedics took away a man in front of the bar who was apparently suffering from alcohol poisoning.
“I’ve worked here for six years, and it’s been a constant problem,” he said.
Sixth Ward Councilman Brian Ash presented Lockhart’s petition, as well as a packet of information from Carrie Gartner, director of the Downtown Columbia Associations. The packet outlined the problem, provided background information and suggested changes be made to the ordinance.
The council referred the petition and packet to the city staff to research whether an amendment is needed.
“The issue needs to be addressed, but there’s always a concern that changing an ordinance won’t help,” Ash said.
Ash owns Bambino’s Italian Café at 203 Hitt St. As a downtown business owner, he said the problem has been worse in the past but remains real. Police Chief Randy Boehm said some changes would help officers better deal with complaints. If the ordinance had more specific criteria, for example, police could take action when a panhandler causes problems. He said, however, that simply asking for money without causing a disturbance is legal.
“I think the store owners would just as soon not have them there, but if what they’re doing is legal, there’s little we can do,” Boehm said.
Some people said they think tougher restrictions on panhandlers and loiterers is unnecessary.
Heather De Mian, 33, an Interfaith Day Center worker, said more restrictions will increase what she thinks is an already high level of discrimination against homeless people. De Mian has been working with the homeless in Columbia since she was 17.
“A number of the guys hang out on Ninth Street; some of them panhandle,” De Mian said. But police, she said, sometimes harass them. One of the men she helps was given a ticket for practicing yoga on a park bench, she said.
David Blount, 35, is unemployed and unable to find work. He was arrested and accused of trespassing in an abandoned house where he was sleeping.
“If I can’t work and there’s nowhere to sleep, I don’t know what they expect me to do,” he said.
Michael Ruwe, 47, is homeless and suffers from alcoholism and epilepsy. He said he was forcefully removed and charged with trespassing when he tried to use the restroom at the City Center downtown.
“I just went in to use the bathroom,” he said. “I’m homeless, and it’s illegal to be homeless.”