The City-County Council would be well advised to adopt panhandling-ordinance changes passed Nov. 19 by the Rules and Public Policy Committee. The revisions could help both convention and local business. And if police resist enforcing it heavy-handedly, the city would benefit without trampling on constitutional rights.
The committee passed a measure that, among other changes, greatly restricts the areas where asking for money, and even passive solicitation, is allowed. But it wisely steers clear of controversial provisions adopted in some other cities—provisions that have drawn accusations of free-speech and civil-liberties violations.
The most significant changes to the Indianapolis law would:
• Broaden the panhandling barrier radius—to a 50-foot circle around sidewalk cafes, building entrances, ATMs, parking meters, bus stops and the like, from the previous 20 feet.
• Make passive solicitation and street performers subject to the same restrictions as panhandling, which is defined as requesting a donation in person in a public place.
The tighter restrictions would, in essence, ban panhandling from great sections of downtown. A few blocks in the Mile Square are parking-meter-free, and panhandlers would likely jockey for prime spots on Monument Circle. But most downtown sidewalks are within 50 feet of a space where financial transactions take place, thereby making them banned zones for panhandling.
The updates are modeled after the law San Antonio adopted two years ago in reaction to complaints about excessive panhandling on its scenic but dense and narrow River Walk—its signature tourism destination and one of the most-visited attractions in Texas.
Downtown density exacerbates Indianapolis’ panhandling problem. In fact, VisitIndy, Indianapolis’ tourism arm, says the city has lost 10 meetings worth a total of $6 million in visitor spending the last two years because of complaints that panhandling is more acute in Indianapolis than in other convention cities.
Raleigh, N.C., has been particularly aggressive in addressing panhandling, in 2011 going so far as to require panhandlers to register for a free permit. That allows the city to do criminal background checks on applicants, and to distribute information about services for poor and homeless residents.
But that law has invited criticism from the American Civil Liberties Union and others, who charge that requiring a permit restricts free speech. Some Indianapolis city councilors considered including a similar provision in the local update, but the revisions the Rules and Public Policy Committee passed wisely avoided any such language.
The proposed changes strike a fair balance between protecting the rights of citizens to walk and conduct business in public safely and securely with the rights of citizens to seek donations in public places. The full council should make the revisions law when the measure comes up for final vote Dec. 9.•
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