New Proposal Questions the Safety of Panhandling on Boston's Busiest Streets
Published: Wednesday, February 20, 2013
Updated: Wednesday, February 20, 2013 22:02
For years, Boston’s panhandlers have been begging locals and visitors for change, and now city officials are, too. After numerous calls to Mayor Thomas M. Menino’s community hotline, the Boston City Council formed a committee to tackle “aggressive panhandling” in the Boston area.
The committee responsible for drafting an ordinance is composed of neighborhood police, development, and members of the department of public health. The effects of their proposal were first reviewed in January.
The ordinance would regulate and place penalties on panhandling and soliciting in certain areas of the city. A previous proposal that was signed by Mayor Menino and put specific fines and regulations into place for panhandling, and this new one would have similar effects.
The order was recently brought up for review last Tuesday in a public hearing by the City Council’s Committee on Government Operations. Currently being debated among Boston officials, the ordinance, if passed, would place a restriction on where beggars can and cannot panhandle. The old ordinance, that is now out of effect, stated that beggars would be fined $50 for a first time violation for soliciting motorists through traffic or passerbys within 10-feet of an ATM machine or bank entrance in the city. The ordinance clarified that limiting solicitation to motorists includes restricting panhandling in bike lanes, exit ramps, and shoulder areas. If an individual had subsequent offenses for panhandling, a court would determine whether the individual would receive community-service hours or a $100 fine.
Officials are currently debating whether the new ordinance is necessary at all, citing that panhandlers are not often too aggressive or violent, and don’t deserve to be restricted. Other concerns include the question as to whether or not a fine, like in the old ordinance, of $50 or $100 will be in place and if it is “fair” or “too high.” Councillor Daniel F. Conley raised a question in 1998 of whether the penalties were reasonable that is still considered a point of contention today: “How are we going to impose a $50 fine on somebody who’s out collecting quarters on the street?”
Likewise, in 1998 Boston City Councilor Thomas M. Keane, Jr. responded to Councilor Conley in The Globe in a statement that would express support for the ordinances renewal, “The goal is not to put people in jail or pay $50 fines—it’s that they stop.” Other councilors point out that the option of community service is in place for those who cannot afford the fine.
Some officials are concerned that the ordinance would not only be ineffective, but unconstitutional in that it would give too much power to Boston’s police force. Others are concerned that the ordinance would be a limitation on freedom of speech. Opponents also argue that, while the proposal strives to solve a problem that needs attention, it fails to execute a reasonable solution and could potentially negatively target the homeless community in its efforts to aid public safety should it be passed.
Sheila Dillon, director of the Hub’s Department of Neighborhood Development, disagreed. She noted that the goal of the ordinance is to help people and keep them safe, and not to add more difficulties in the daily routine’s of those who must resort to panhandling.
The Mayor’s office emphasized that its goal is not only to strictly limit panhandling through fines and legal consequences, but also to help the homeless community. While the safety of the general Boston population was the inspiration for the formation of the committee and the proposal, aid for the panhandlers themselves are also considered in the proposal. The Mayor’s office hopes to decrease panhandling through public donations to outreach organizations.
Dillon also clarified this point that the proposed ordinance will not only help the safety of the public, but also the safety of the people panhandling. “The police are very aware that there is a lot of people panhandling at busy intersections and it’s very dangerous for them,” Dillon said. “We don’t want them to be hit."
City Councilor Ayanna Pressley proposed making donation stations out of old parking meters that are no longer in use. Here, Pressley suggested, people could get rid of spare change that would collect and then be donated to organizations that would help Boston’s homeless community. Dillon spoke highly of the mayor and committee’s efforts, “The mayor is a champion of homeless individuals and families and has worked his whole career to get people houses and services.”