Panhandlers might find their work a little harder this winter.
Amendments to the city code on panhandling, approved Monday night by the City Council, are placing greater restrictions on the ways people can solicit.
The changes are the result of a petition signed by 30 downtown business owners. Many said they were concerned that increasingly aggressive panhandling was driving customers away from the downtown area.
Carrie Gartner, director of the Columbia Special Business District, said the problem was not necessarily just panhandling, but the manner in which people are solicited.
“What’s happening now is that somebody will stand in front of the door of a building, and they won’t let people in or out,” Gartner said. “It’s a very frightening thing for some people.”
The new code creates a more specific definition of panhandling that will give police greater power to enforce the law. However, the definition of panhandling does not include passively standing or sitting with a sign that requests donations. Violations of the panhandling law are Class B misdemeanors.
Several Columbians spoke at Monday’s meeting both for and against the ordinance. Lana Jacobs, a worker at St. Francis House, urged the council not to pass the law. She agreed with business owners about the problems with aggressive panhandling downtown but said passing laws would only push the problem out of the community’s hands and into the already overburdened
hands of the police.
“Jail is not the proper place for these people,” she said.
Leigh Lockhart, owner of The Main Squeeze, said that she initiated the petition and that the current ordinance is not enough to address the “negative” environment downtown.
Gartner has worked with the city to create the new amendments, which are modeled after a Denver ordinance.
“They have an ordinance that protects free speech but clarifies what behaviors are intimidating or aggressive.”
Other restrictions on panhandling include:
Soliciting after dark.
Soliciting within 20 feet of a public toilet, an automated teller machine, a pay telephone or a bank.
Soliciting within 10 feet of the entrance to a building.
Soliciting on any city bus or within 20 feet of any bus station or bus stop.
Soliciting from a person waiting in any line, seated at an outdoor dining facility or in an automobile.
Continuing solicitation or closely following a person who has declined the panhandler.
Using violent gestures or abusive language to the person being solicited.
Gartner says that now that the law has passed, the Special Business District plans to enact an educational campaign to inform people of the organizations that provide food and shelter to the homeless, a move that Mayor Darwin Hindman strongly supported at the meeting.