Updated: Portland takes another look at ordinance that would restrict panhandling

Kelly Noble panhandles in the median strip on the corner of St. John Street and Park Avenue in Portland in this July 3, 2012, file photo. Noble said at the time a proposed city ordinance restricting pedestrians in the median won’t stop any panhandlers she knows. “I know people who’ve been panhandling for 20 years,” she said. (BDN file photo by Troy R. Bennett)

Tonight, the Portland City Council’s Public Safety, Health and Human Services Committee is taking another look at a proposed ordinance that would prevent people from lingering in the median strips in city streets.

The larger council voted 6-3 against a similar ordinance last July, with representatives of the ACLU of Maine and Homeless Voices for Justice calling for the proposal’s defeat on the grounds that — despite what the exact wording of the ordinance might say — it would essentially serve to block panhandlers from using the median strips. As such, the opponents said, it was an unfair criminalization of the poor and infringed on their first amendment rights to free speech.

The speech, in this case, is the nonviolent display of signs seeking financial help.

That July vote was the culmination of a long stretch of public debate over the use of the median strips as panhandling spots, with some in the business community expressing concerns that the begging in such high traffic locations could deter shoppers from coming into the downtown and those in law enforcement saying they were worried the closeness of cars and people presented a safety hazard.

The latter concern is what’s driving the return of the issue to the council’s committee tonight.

The proposed ordinance change would prohibit any person from standing, sitting, staying, driving or parking in the median strips.

In a memo to top city attorney Danielle West-Chuhta, Neighborhood Prosecutor Trish McAllister wrote that despite free speech claims, “Portland would have a very strong argument that this ordinance is still valid.”

McAllister noted that it doesn’t say anything about panhandling, rather blocks everybody equally from occupying the median strips for anything other than temporary passage from one side of the street to the other. She added that it would not prevent people from panhandling on the sidewalks in the downtown, rather just from doing so in the median strips.

She also referenced an ordinance passed in Worcester, Mass., attempting to accomplish the same goals. The ACLU is challenging that ordinance in federal court, and McAllister said Portland officials should watch the progress of that legal battle closely.

Update, 6/12/13: The committee unanimously endorsed the proposed ordinance change upon its return Tuesday night, according to a follow-up from our media partners at Portland NBC affiliate WCSH 6.

According to News Center, complaints to the police about panhandlers has grown from 169 in 2012 to 212 so far this year, a dramatic jump considering there’s a lot of this year left to go.

Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck in the WCSH coverage is heard listing off some of the more dramatic complaints to the committee, including one instance in which a panhandler fell in front of a vehicle and another in which a panhandler allegedly reached inside a car and punched the driver.

Multimedia Journalist Sarah Delage reported that even representatives from homeless service provider Preble Street and Homeless Voices For Justice were open to the ordinance this time around, but that speakers from those organizations wanted city officials to take a harder look at the conditions that drive people to panhandle as much as restricting where they can do it.

Seth Koenig

About Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.