Asking for money near Baltimore restaurants, shops or parking meters would be outlawed under legislation some City Council members say is needed to make residents and visitors feel safer.
The proposal, which heads to the full council for its consideration on Nov. 4, faces opposition from advocates for the homeless and free-speech groups, who say broadly limiting panhandling violates the Constitution.
The effort is an outgrowth of an attempt by Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector to crack down on those who ask for money in traffic — which is already illegal. Spector wants that law to be better enforced and expanded to stop individuals from approaching people for money while they eat at outdoor restaurant tables, pay a parking fee or wait in line to access an entertainment venue.
"This is atrocious behavior," said Spector, who represents Pimlico, Mount Washington and other Northwest Baltimore neighborhoods. "This isn't targeted toward anybody, but bad behavior is bad behavior."
The City Council's judiciary committee approved the bill Tuesday in a 3-2 vote. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young haven't said what they think.
The proposal has the support of Baltimore's Downtown Partnership. President Kirby Fowler said the group wants the city to strengthen its solicitation law to combat "persistent concerns about people panhandling." The organization is specifically concerned with individuals who panhandle at outdoor venues or while residents and tourists are waiting in lines, he said.
"In those situations, we think panhandlers take unnecessary advantage of people," Fowler said.
But Bonnie Lane, a formerly homeless woman who now lives in the Barclay neighborhood, said panhandling isn't the root of the problem and city leaders should be focused on solving Baltimore's entrenched poverty.
"Maybe there would be less panhandling if people had access to livable wages and affordable housing," said Lane, who wants to run for mayor. "Instead of criminalizing the homeless, why aren't they doing something about that? People panhandle to eat, to be able to buy soap or shampoo or deodorant."
David Rocah, a senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, and Antonia K. Fasanelli, director of the Baltimore-based Homeless Persons Representation Project, also oppose the legislation as a violation on the First Amendment.
Fasanelli said the bill essentially blocks panhandling in the entire downtown area by attempting to prohibit soliciting for money within 10 feet of a shop or restaurant or within five feet of a parking meter. She called the legislation "overly broad."
"What this does is actually prohibits solicitation of any kind," Fasanelli said. "It would seemingly prohibit someone from asking for 30 cents from a friend for bus fare. If someone happens to be calmly sitting on a sidewalk and asking for 10 cents, that is hardly an intrusion and it certainly doesn't put someone's safety at risk."
City law already prohibits aggressive soliciting — including using intimidation, intentionally blocking a person from passing by or using obscene or abusive language — anywhere. People also cannot ask for money from individuals who are driving or riding in motor vehicles or offer to provide a service in exchange for cash, such as cleaning a windshield. Penalties include a fine of up to $250 and 90 days in jail.
Begging for money within 10 feet of an ATM is also unlawful.
Spector said the city doesn't have the resources to station officers at every intersection, but along with the new legislation, she wants police to more actively enforce the existing law.
Police say cracking down on panhandlers is difficult, according to a letter from the Police Department to the City Council in March.
"Often, law enforcement will be able to abate the violation by asking the solicitor to move from the roadway area only to have the violator return after the officer leaves the area," James H. Green, director of government affairs for the police, wrote in the letter.
Councilmen Robert Curran and Edward Reisinger are among the bill's supporters.
"Those individuals at the parking meters, who take money out of their pocket, they have their rights, too," said Reisinger, the council's vice president. "If someone wants to panhandle or come up and ask for money, it should be at a distance."
Reisinger said panhandling on city streets and in traffic "may sound minor compared to drug dealing and homicide," but regulating the practice is an important quality-of-life issue.
Curran said he understands the struggles vulnerable people face, but said the safety and comfort of residents and visitors also cannot be ignored. "I was torn," he said.
Simon "Smokey" Carey, 57, said he doesn't expect to be affected by the proposal or that many panhandlers will. He said he typically panhandles around North Avenue and Charles Street and near a gas station in the Charles North neighborhood, where he worked out an arrangement with the owner, who lets him panhandle in exchange for keeping the lot free of trash.
"The ones who panhandle, they might move to a different spot, but I don't think it's going to stop it," said Carey, who also offers to clean hubcaps for $1 or $2. He said he stays with his sister in Park Heights but does not have a regular job. "Some have to do it because they're homeless, or they need something to eat."
Carey said he was friends with Joseph Blake, a panhandler killed in a hit-and-run at Howard Street and North Avenue this month. Carey said the city should crack down on people who panhandle in traffic as a safety precaution.
Blake, he said, is "up in heaven now, panhandling in a better place."
Legal scholars differ about where cities can draw the line.
Elena R. DiPietro, Baltimore's chief solicitor, advised the city to emphasize in its legislation that public safety is the primary focus and that targeting the prohibition on a narrow geographic area would put the city on sounder legal footing.
"Unfortunately, decisions across the country over the past few years have not clarified this rather murky area of First Amendment law," she wrote in a letter to council in August.
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Rocah, the ACLU lawyer, said limiting solicitation for public-safety reasons has been supported by the courts, but there is no evidence a person is more likely to be a victim of a crime within certain feet of a parking meter or a business."
William Martin, a partner with the Philadelphia-based law firm Fox Rothschild, said Baltimore has the right to distinguish places where individuals can solicit as long as "they are leaving alternative means for people to exercise their First Amendment rights" and the city can demonstrate a "significant government interest."
"If an individual is required to utilize a parking meter, they don't have options to walk away," Martin said. "The ACLU always has very strong and black-and-white assessments of these situations. I think that the courts have demonstrated some subtleties in their analysis."
Baltimore Sun reporter Carrie Wells contributed to this article.