Ambridge wants a panel on helping panhandlers Councilman seeks services, not ban


Baltimore Councilman Anthony J. Ambridge was hurrying up Charles Street the other day when a panhandler stopped him and demanded a quarter to buy a bowl of soup.

Instead of reaching into his pocket, the 2nd District Democrat offered to treat the man to lunch at a nearby deli. His gesture, Mr. Ambridge said, was rudely refused. The panhandler muttered curses at him and ambled off to find another benefactor.

It was the type of encounter that the Schmoke administration wants to prevent under a bill to curb "aggressive panhandling." The measure provides for fines and jail terms.

But the confrontation with the panhandler left Mr. Ambridge convinced that the proposed ordinance alone won't work.

He said he polled three police officers who came to his assistance Wednesday afternoon and all agreed they would rather take panhandlers to shelters than to jail.

Mr. Ambridge wants to establish a task force with representatives from the Mayor's Office of Homeless Services, Action for the Homeless and the Fraternal Order of Police to study alternatives to the measure introduced last week.

The ordinance would prohibit panhandlers from intimidating people on the streets by blocking their paths, using profanities or asking for money repeatedly after being refused. It would provide for fines of up to $100 and jail terms of up to 30 days for first offenses.

"It's well-intentioned, but realistically, not enforceable," Mr. Ambridge said. "I talked to the police officers about it, and they made it clear that they really want the authority to take the panhandlers somewhere where they can dry out or get some help.

"Besides, the judges really have their hands filled with felons."

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke has emphasized that the city will "continue to be sensitive to the needs of people who are truly in need" and only use penalties as a last resort.

"The intent of this is purely to indicate, as the mayor said, that people can go about their business free of unnecessary, aggressive solicitations," said Peter Marudas, the mayor's executive assistant for intergovernmental relations.

Mr. Marudas also said the legislation would not preclude studying additional remedies, such as a voucher system in which citizens give food coupons to panhandlers.

Mr. Ambridge's call for a task force pleased homeless advocates, who have attacked the bill as "vague" and possibly unconstitutional.

"My perspective is the way to reduce panhandling is to provide services, jobs, decent incomes and affordable housing for people," said Norma Pinette, executive director of Action for the Homeless.

If the bill becomes law, business groups have said, it will help bring back customers who are being scared away by hostile panhandlers. Still, Laurie Schwartz, president of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, a business consortium, agrees other measures also are needed.

"While the partnership endorses the aggressive-panhandling bill, it is taking many steps to help deal in a responsible way with homelessness in our city," Ms. Schwartz said.

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