Supporters of a widespread ban on panhandling in Baltimore are scaling back the proposal amid criticism the legislation went too far.
Under a proposed amendment, the bill would prohibit panhandling within 10 feet of outdoor dining — rather than entire commercial districts — and within five feet of a parking meter or kiosk. Panhandling also would be barred on pedestrian bridges and at the entrance to stairwells.
The City Council postponed a vote Monday on the ban at the request of the bill's sponsor, Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector, so the amendment can be drafted and studied.
Spector said amending the bill is an attempt to respect the rights of all involved. She said she listened to the criticism of opponents, who said the measure as originally proposed would have effectively applied to all of downtown Baltimore.
"That didn't ring right," she said.
The revised legislation is expected to go before the council in two weeks.
The proposed changes didn't satisfy some critics, who staged a protest during the council meeting. Advocates for the homeless chanted, "Homes not handcuffs!" as a banner with the same message was unfurled from the chamber balcony.
One of the protesters, Tony Simmons, who is homeless, was escorted from the meeting for being disruptive. About 10 other advocates followed in solidarity.
"Criminalizing panhandling and homelessness doesn't get at the root of the problem," said Rachel Kutler, a social worker.
Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership, said the organization regularly hears from city restaurateurs on behalf of customers who feel vulnerable when approached for money while they dine outdoors.
The nonprofit organization, which represents businesses, property owners, employees and visitors, asked the council to ban panhandling while people pay for parking, eat at a restaurant's outdoor tables or wait in line to see a show or sporting event.
The bill is an outgrowth of Spector's original proposal, which sought to crack down on panhandling in roadways, a practice that is already illegal.
"It's a complicated issue that requires the balancing of people's rights," Fowler said. "People should have a right to avoid a solicitation when they're in a confined area using cash or a credit card.
"It's an inherently vulnerable situation that panhandlers know they can take advantage of."
Councilman James B. Kraft, who represents Southeast Baltimore, said panhandling has crossed a line in some parts of his district.
"We have had a number of incidents in Fells Point, where we have people who have said, 'I don't want to give money to you,' and they've had people spit in their food," Kraft said.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake hasn't weighed in on the legislation. Her spokeswoman, Caron Brace, said the mayor is waiting for the legislative process to play out.
But Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young doesn't support it, said his spokesman, Lester Davis.
"He thinks the better approach is to work on the underlying issues," Davis said.
Kevin Lindamood, president of Health Care for the Homeless, said the city already has a tough anti-begging law that prohibits aggressive soliciting, such as blocking a person from passing or using obscene or abusive language. The city also bans soliciting within 10 feet of an ATM.
Lindamood said that even if amended, the proposed legislation would make it easier to arrest the poor, which could add more barriers to their future self-sufficiency. A criminal record, for instance, limits housing options, he said.
"We've had decades of practice to show punitive measures aimed at public begging are simply ineffective," Lindamood said, "and constitutionally questionable."
The American Civil Liberties Union and other groups say such legislation would infringe on First Amendment rights. To account for the constitutional concerns, the city's chief solicitor advised the council to narrow the geographical area covered by the ban.
Councilman Bill Henry said he will support the ban with the proposed amendment.
"It is the council's job to do what they can to make sure their constituents are happy and comfortable, and it's the ACLU's job to make sure we're not violating the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
"If we can make people feel more comfortable without violating the Constitution, that's what passes for middle ground."
twitter.com/yvonnewengerCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun